Oregon bill divides disability advocates, hospitals

map of Oregon
Criminalization of Mental Illness

A new bill introduced into the Oregon Legislature that aims to protect hospital employees is receiving push back from disability rights advocates, who say the bill “reinforces a national trend to criminalize mental illness.

House Bill 4036, introduced February 3, makes “intentionally or knowingly” assaulting a state hospital employee a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill was spurred by a string of recent assaults at the Oregon State Hospital.

For the bill’s supporters, such as the state’s two largest public employee unions, the bill is a necessary workplace safety measure.

Contrarily, Disability Rights Oregon argues that existing laws need to be enforced and that hospitals should focus on using “evidence-based practices of behavioral assessment, using planning and clinically-directed response by trained staff” to reduce potential violent attacks.

“The hospital needs to remain a place of healing, not a place of punishment,” Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, told the Oregonian. “Criminalization of the mentally ill is something that’s a national phenomenal, and all we’ll be doing is potentially moving more people into the criminal justice system, who will be returning to the hospital.”

A hearing was held on the bill February 10.

Disability Rights Oregon is the federally funded protection and advocacy system in Oregon, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.