(Illustration special to the Enterprise by Katherine Lam)
After Sean Rieschel punched a woman at a laundromat for refusing to give him $3.50, he was found “guilty except for insanity” in 2010 and sent to the Oregon State Hospital.
There, he was treated for bipolar and substance-use disorders — help he would not have received in prison if he’d been convicted of assault — and twice improved enough to live in group homes.
But in 2015, the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board abruptly released Rieschel, ending the state’s oversight of his case and forcing him to leave the group home.
It wasn’t because officials believed his mental illness had abated or that he wasn’t a threat to Oregonians.
Instead, he had simply reached the maximum sentence he could have served in prison if he had been convicted of assault. Under Oregon’s law, state officials had no choice but to end their oversight of Rieschel, even though no doctor had concluded he was ready to live on his own.
As they had done in hundreds of similar cases, state officials ended their oversight of Rieschel with little clue what would become of him.
The arbitrary time limit set by Oregon law is the primary reason people found guilty except for insanity are freed, according to an analysis of 10 years of state data by the Malheur Enterprise and ProPublica. It is one of five states that frees insanity defendants when they’ve reached their maximum prison sentence, without weighing a person’s health and danger.
Such discharges put Oregonians at risk, the analysis showed. Those freed without ongoing supervision and care because of the time limit commit crimes at twice the rate as the smaller group freed because the board specifically concluded they would not be a danger if on their own.
All told, from Jan. 1, 2008, to Oct. 15, 2015, the board released from its supervision 418 people who had been found guilty except for insanity in felony cases. Of the 297 let go because of the time limit, one-third were charged with new crimes within three years. (A similar reoffense rate was found among 60 others who were released because the board found they did not have a mental illness that qualified for the insanity defense.)
By comparison, the rate of new offenses was much lower for the 61 people released after doctors said they no longer posed a danger to themselves or others; only 16 percent were again charged within three years.
The Psychiatric Security Review Board didn’t respond to questions about the specific findings of the Enterprise and ProPublica. And Gov. Kate Brown, who appoints the board members, didn’t respond to questions or requests for an interview about a system that is proving more dangerous to citizens than previously known.
The board has said it does not track what happens to people once they are let go. But on its website it says that less than 1 percent of its clients living in the community under its supervision commit new crimes. The data about how often people commit new crimes once released by the board was compiled in a yearlong examination by the Enterprise and ProPublica. The analysis involved a case-by-case review and employed similar methods to academic studies of re-offense rates and the calculations routinely done by states to track people freed from prison.
The five-member board has largely stayed silent about the findings, issuing general statements or relying on its executive director, Alison Bort, to speak for it.
Bort acknowledged that the board does not consider health or public safety when it frees someone because of the time limit. She said the agency is not required to make sure its former clients are set up for comparable mental health services or even a place to live.
“Once a person is discharged from the board’s jurisdiction, there are several other systems of care that the client or his or her clinical team can access,” the board said in one statement.
Bort added that the board trusts private treatment providers working for state and local governments to make adequate transition plans. “Following a client’s discharge from the board, that client is considered a public citizen with the right to follow through, modify or completely disregard the discharge plan” of the team that treats the person, which is distinct from the board, the board said in an October statement.
When people deemed criminally insane are freed because their time is up, the task of caring for them typically falls to family, local communities and the police.
That was the case with Rieschel, now 47. When he was released from his group home, he moved in with his 86-year-old mother, who had endured decades of his criminal behavior.
She said releasing him into the community because of the time cap was a mistake. She is frustrated her son had to leave high-level care that had, for the first time, given him stability. Oregon, she said, has no solution to offer people whose chronic mental illness can cause crime — other than incarceration.
“Basically, what they do is throw you in jail,” Barbara Rieschel said. “That’s their answer.”
That’s where Rieschel found himself again, arrested repeatedly in coastal Lincoln County and charged with a string of crimes that ranged from drunken driving to disorderly conduct.
In an August interview at his mother’s home, Rieschel recounted his troubles with the law back to when he was a teenager, as he exhibited symptoms of bipolar disorder and started drinking and smoking pot. He said before he landed in the state hospital, he would go days without sleeping, in which he felt boundless optimism and bursts of energy, before falling into days of nothing but sleep and depression.
Arrests soon followed one after the other to the point his father barred him from the family home. In 2010, Rieschel, then 39, faced an Oregon circuit court judge for his 25th criminal case.
He had been charged with assault, robbery and other crimes. According to court records, he approached a woman at night in a Newport laundromat, asking for $3.50 and a light for his cigarette. She told him she didn’t smoke and wouldn’t give him money.
Police reports say Rieschel hit her in the face, head and neck. She tried to dial 911, but he grabbed her wrist and twisted until she let go of the phone. He broke her phone in half and left. An officer found a “visibly intoxicated” Rieschel on the ground outside a nearby fire station.
Mental health experts later concluded that Rieschel’s bipolar disorder left him unable follow the law. Instead of jail, this time he was found guilty except for insanity and put in the jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board for five years. He was taken to the state mental hospital in Salem.
There, Rieschel said, doctors put him on medication that reduced the frequency and intensity of his bipolar symptoms while leaving him with enough mental clarity to function. In 2013, he was deemed suitable for a community group home, but that lasted just a year as Rieschel continued abusing alcohol and meth, according to Rieschel and court records.
“He had threatened to kill one of the residents,” a mental health worker wrote in late 2014. “When I arrived, he attempted to assault me in the process of trying to take my phone away.”
Rieschel went back to the state hospital before being released into another group home, this time on the coast near his mother. Just a few months later, he was told he had to go — his five years were up and the state no longer had jurisdiction over him. The group home wouldn’t let him stay because it only serves board clients.
“They just needed those beds for other people,” he said of the Newport facility where he had lived.
Rieschel said he was connected with a county mental health program for therapy appointments. Rieschel moved in with his mother and voluntarily followed through with the recommended appointments, at least for a while. He liked that he no longer had strict curfews and random drug tests. He could play music late into the night and go on walks in the twilight hours. Soon, Rieschel stopped attending group therapy for his substance-use disorder.
Seven months after his release, Rieschel was in handcuffs again, this time charged with drunken driving. More arrests followed.
At one point, a judge ordered Rieschel into treatment in Portland, but professionals there found they couldn’t handle his “psychological instability.”
By spring 2017, he was back at his mother’s Newport home, again abusing alcohol and meth, according to Rieschel and court records. He also had stopped taking his medication for bipolar disorder, his mother said in court records.
Late one night that June, Monica Kirk, a neighbor of the Rieschels, woke from a deep sleep to the screaming of her partner. When she walked into the living room, Kirk saw a “shaggy haired, bearded guy … in a baggy coat” pounding on her glass door and yelling to be let in.
The women yelled for him to go away, but he continued to “bang, bang, bang,” she said in an interview.
In September 2017, Rieschel was sentenced to 180 days in jail and a year probation, with an option to instead go to a treatment facility. His mother couldn’t find one that would take him.
In July 2018, he was released from jail only to be arrested again in a matter of days, accused of punching a woman he knew — who had developmental disabilities and had also been released by the board because of the time cap — as they walked across a local highway.
Rieschel’s trial on that disorderly conduct charge, scheduled for five days before Christmas, was postponed at the last minute.
His public defender, who said he was unaware of Rieschel’s previous insanity plea until speaking with the Enterprise, asked for time to have his client once again evaluated to see if he was mentally fit to face trial.
The time limit that turned Rieschel loose became law as Oregon legislators in 1977 crafted major reforms for the state’s criminal insanity system.
At that time, judges supervised those they found to be criminally insane and placed them either at the state hospital or in the community. Judges were required to review such cases every five years, freeing people if doctors or prosecutors could not show that a person needed to remain under supervision.
In 1977, two state task forces assessed that system and found it wanting. One group set up by the governor said judges didn’t have the staff or training to supervise people with serious mental illness. It also determined that local mental health providers were reluctant to treat people who used the insanity defense, who they considered “undesirable” patients. At the time, a state law allowed county mental health programs to decline to serve people sent to them by judges.
A second task force established by what was then the state’s Mental Health Division reported to legislators that it was “imperative” to improve help for people found to be not guilty by reason of insanity.
“These services must be accorded the highest priority because the community security is involved,” the task force reported.
Responding to the reports, lawmakers set up the Psychiatric Security Review Board and shifted responsibility for monitoring defendants who successfully pleaded insanity from judges to the new panel.
“The result should be improved decisions for rehabilitation of the person and for the protection of society,” wrote J.D. Bray, then the state’s mental health administrator, in testimony to legislators.
Legislators made one other critical change. They replaced the mandatory five-year review with a requirement that supervision “not exceed the maximum sentence the person could have received had he been found responsible” for the crime.
That meant these individuals would stay under state control no longer than if they had been convicted and sent to prison — even if doctors didn’t think they were prepared to live on their own safely in the community. The board wasn’t given the discretion once accorded to judges, who had the authority to decide a person was a danger and required ongoing care or monitoring.
Today, Oregon advocates for people with mental illness defend the time cap as a critical civil rights protection. They note that people sentenced to prison are let go once they have completed their time, even if they are dangerous or mentally ill.
One key difference is that people sentenced to prison terms almost always have months or years of community supervision after their release through the state’s system of parole officers. Those freed by the Psychiatric Security Review Board have none.
The Enterprise and ProPublica analysis of the states’ data makes clear the human costs of this policy. Over the past decade, according to available court records, 93 people freed by the time cap attacked at least 238 people. Those ranged from minor assaults to murder.
Bort, who treated insanity defendants before becoming the board’s director, said in August that “it’s the saddest thing ever” to free someone because of the time limit in state law.
“As the jurisdiction lifts, so do all the things that were helping the person stay stable,” she said.
Jayme Fraser is a reporter for the Malheur Enterprise, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. She’s spending the year examining the way states manage people with mental illnesses who commit violent crimes — in Oregon and nationally. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @JaymeKFraser.