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Mental health factors into jail releases

Soapbox

The Times recently published a guest column by attorney Dean Smith of Metropolitan Public Defender ('A $2,000 Solution for a $3 problem' - May 26, 2011).

He suggested that Washington County ignored release laws and held Jeremy Murphy longer than necessary.

We offer the following facts so readers may draw informed conclusions:

On March 1, 2011, a deputy contacted Mr. Murphy during a routine fare inspection at the Beaverton Transit Center. Mr. Murphy said he had not and did not need to buy a fare, and all police could do is issue a warning.

He then became confrontational about how police did not have authority over him and quickly escalated to ranting. Mr. Murphy had over $40 with him and had received prior warnings in January. Mr. Murphy was arrested for theft of services.

Attorney Smith stated that Mr. Murphy had 'no known criminal history.' Mr. Murphy has been arrested nine times in Missouri from 1988 to 2009, mostly for theft.

The day of his arrest, jail court release officers found Mr. Murphy ineligible for pretrial release on his own recognizance. He had no address, no contacts in Oregon and was considered transient. Court release staff concurred. The release amount ('bail') was set at the standard $250 for this crime.

On March 2, Mr. Murphy was arraigned and the court appointed a public defender to represent him.

On March 3, Mr. Murphy was classified as a heightened security risk because of his volatile behavior and mental health issues. He required separation from general population inmates and escorts outside his housing unit.

Between March 4 and March 21, records show Metropolitan Public Defender staff visited Mr. Murphy four times.

On March 14, an early case resolution hearing was scheduled, but his attorney cancelled it, citing that Mr. Murphy might not be able to aid and assist in his own defense due to mental health issues.

On March 15, his attorney requested a release hearing.

During the release hearing on March 21, the court noted that Mr. Murphy had been in custody 21 days, likely longer than any sentence he would have received had he pleaded guilty in the first place. He was released that day.

The district attorney's office subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the case in the interests of justice based on the facts and his stay in jail.

Attorney Smith asserts that 'two release officers' is not suitable and that the county could save money with a new release 'program.' Actually, 27 jail deputies are authorized court release officers. Further, a county consultant concluded that a release program would cost an additional $1.5 million annually. Yet it would not improve our current system that properly uses jail deputies to make initial release decisions.

Finally, attorney Smith failed to acknowledge that Mr. Murphy's mental illness played a role in his arrest, the cancellation of the early case resolution hearing and his inability to help in his own defense.

As statewide funding cuts for treatment continue, law enforcement and jails are dealing with more people who are unable to function normally in the community and often pose public safety risks. While it may not be perfect, as a county, we have found many innovative ways to serve this population.

For example, patrol deputies are trained to effectively identify and respond to calls involving people with various types of mental illness. We have one full-time deputy mental health liaison that helps people access services. Patrol also has a newer program that allows a Washington County mental health specialist to ride on the busiest shifts with a patrol deputy. This gives deputies more resources on the road to deal with suspects or others who need assistance beyond the traditional role of law enforcement.

The jail has been nationally recognized for its housing unit designed for inmates at risk. Inmates with major mental health disorders, developmental disabilities and certain physical limitations are lodged together separate from the general population. Deputies and medical staff with advanced training staff this pod in order to deal with this population. This innovative program has been recognized twice in national publications, and was named Program of the Year 2009 by the National Commission on Corrections Health Care. Our judges are also piloting a new Mental Health Court.

As your district attorney and sheriff, we are confident that Mr. Murphy was treated in the most appropriate way in light of all the facts, from arrest to release.

(Soapboxes are guest opinions from our readers, and anyone is welcome to write one. Bob Hermann is the Washington County District Attorney. Rob Gordon is the Washington County Sheriff.)