New findings this week about Oregon’s system for the criminally insane adds urgency to the need for reform. Too many Oregonians are facing too much risk of harm. The state is freeing those found guilty except for insanity, turning then out into communities and then looking the other way as damage is done.
The latest numbers are worse than ever. The Malheur Enterprise and ProPublica, the national investigative newsroom, have spent a year digging into the state system. The focus has been the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board, charged by law with managing those found guilty of crimes except for insanity. Our initial findings in November were troubling enough about previously unreported recidivism. But days after we published that information, the state board advised it hadn’t provided all the information requested. Here, the board said, is the list of another 192 people discharged into the community.
Reporter Jayme Fraser and colleagues at ProPublica dug in, applying the same rigorous research that guided the earlier reporting. They found that recidivism among those discharged by the board was higher than recidivism of those freed from Oregon prisons. In the last decade, more than 300 people have been attacked by a criminally insane person freed by the state. That includes police officers, medics, relatives and total bystanders.
After our November report, key state officials called for action. From Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to Senate President Peter Courtney, leaders said the issues flagged by the Enterprise warranted more study and likely changes in state law.
You didn’t hear the Security Review Board among those saying something needed to change. That’s because the board spent its energy feeling sorry for itself. Through its executive director, Alison Bort, the board questioned the Enterprise-ProPublica work, ignored questions and in essence said it felt unfairly picked on by the news organizations. "I'm shocked by the questions," Bort said. “I find them to be offensive to our agency.”
Bort and her board took that tack once again last week when the new findings were shared. She brushed off specific questions, responding with a six-sentence statement as her answer to serious questions about the board’s performance and the safety of Oregonians. She seemed to exhibit the board’s disinterest in understanding what happens in Oregon when the criminally insane are discharged from state control.
And the board continues to promote the myth that its work safeguards Oregonians. Its website still touts old numbers: of 765 people released into the community over five years but still under board control, only 11 were charged with new felonies or murders. The board puts this under the heading “Safety Record.” The number, as the board knows, is misleading, distorting the truth of its true safety record as documented by the Enterprise and ProPublica.
Bort implies there isn’t much the board can do about any of it. “Our agency must evaluate and prioritize those statutory mandates prescribed by the Legislature,” she said. But this bland response ignores the essential mandate from the Legislature: “The board shall have as its primary concern the protection of society.”
The board is failing that duty. Bort is the spokesperson but there are five people on this board who are in charge: chairperson Elena Balduzzi, a psychologist, psychiatrist Scott Reichlin, attorney Anne Nichol, Trisha Elmer from the state’s parole and probation community, and John Swetnam, representing the public. They have collectively stayed silent, letting Bort take point.
But there also is one other vital voice that has been silent about this matter of danger to Oregonians. Gov. Kate Brown hasn’t said a peep about this. Her proposed budget for the security review board is essentially flat, meaning she hasn’t recommended adding any financial muscle to this organization. Bort has repeatedly said the board hasn’t the resources to examine recidivism of those it discharges. She acknowledged, though, spending $16,000 on attorneys before releasing basic information to the Enterprise.
The governor appoints the security review board and she has shown before she is willing to apply the force of her office to make the board do right. Brown should break her silence, join other leaders in calling for effective and immediate change, and compel the board to immediately cooperate in shaping the needed reforms. – LZ