Washington County touts ‘fast track’ process that gets defendants in jail faster mental health evaluations

The county reports that it conducted 100 “rapid fitness assessments” in 2023 on mental health evaluations of defendants in jail that took weeks, rather than months.

Hillsboro, Oregon County leaders say their “rapid fitness to proceed” program, aimed at arranging faster mental health evaluations for incarcerated defendants, is improving parts of Oregon’s flawed mental health system and deserves statewide expansion.

The program is used to evaluate defendants in jail accused of a crime and who need a mental health evaluation to determine if they need additional treatment, can understand their charges and help in their own defense.

Under Oregon’s state system, a mental fitness examination can take months—an average of 62 days—which can be detrimental to defendants and delay the court process.

Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton says the county decided the state was taking too long.

“We’re bypassing the state hospital and using the private sector instead of going through a bureaucratic process that was broken in so many ways,” Barton said.

The county’s rapid fitness program provides mental health evaluations to defendants within two to three weeks, on average.

Barton said this helps prevent a mentally ill defendant from “decompensating” in prison, or a serious degradation of their mental state. The state’s backward system, he said, causes numerous problems.

“It also hurts the crime victim because they’re waiting for justice to move forward, and that delay really hurts the criminal case,” he said, referring to tied jail beds and bogged down case files.

Judge Rebecca Guptill, the Washington County presiding judge who oversees the mental health docket, said it’s frustrating to watch defendants wait for evaluation and treatment.

“Going through our rapid fitness process saves time, saves days and reduces the amount of time someone is detained,” he said. “(Also, the amount of money saved is astronomical.”

Washington County estimates the “increased efficiency” of the Rapid Fitness program saved taxpayers nearly $2 million by 2023.

The county completed 100 rapid fitness tests through partnerships with NW Forensic Institute and Lithia Forensics and Consulting, two companies that specialize in mental competency evaluations.

“To the extent that someone else can copy us, they probably should, I think it works really well,” Guptill said.

Washington County isn’t alone in running a fast-paced fitness program. A Multnomah County Circuit Court spokesperson told KGW that the county has four slots for expedited fitness exams each week, leading to a potential of about 200 “expedited” cases per year.

Still, both Washington and Multnomah County leaders said they don’t have the capacity to offer fast-track exams to everyone, and some defendants still wait months for state proficiency tests.

Barton said the additional funding could allow Washington County and private companies to pay for more assessors.

“If we had that state funding to be able to scale up what we’re doing, and also to support other communities that might want to replicate the same process, I think we would see significant benefits at the state level.” Barton said.

Neither Washington nor Multnomah counties provided KGW with data on how many total defendants needed competency evaluations in 2023, saying it is difficult to calculate.

Barton, who is critical of aspects of Oregon’s mental health system, including its high civil commitment standards, said the Rapid Fitness program is an example of collaboration done right to improve the system for everyone if supported statewide.

“What should happen here is that the state should look at what works well, replicate it and scale it up,” he said.

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