By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
As the members of the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative (MWHI) have been making the rounds in the region collecting feedback from residents on how to tackle homelessness in Marion and Polk counties, they are encountering a familiar refrain.
“We attended a neighborhood meeting this past week and one of the questions that came up was about quality of life and livability concerns around homeless populations,” said Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers, a member of the WMHI task force. “The person in the community said just arrest them. What we’ve found from our experiences is we can’t arrest our way out of homelessness.”
The statement served as preface to a presentation, provided by members of the Marion County District Attorney’s Office and Crisis Outreach Response Team (CORT), about some of the ways both groups are trying to innovate when tackling crimes often associated with homelessness. It was the centerpiece of the WMHI meeting at Keizer Civic Center Monday, June 6.
“We are looking for better ways to tackle these issues,” said Deputy District Attorney Paige Clarkson, who is also the team leader for drug offenses sent to the Marion County DA’s office.
When officers make contact with a homeless person for infractions related to livability issues, like criminal mischief or urinating in public, it’s not uncommon for those contacts to result in charges for possession of a controlled substance, Clarkson said.
In the past, the vast majority of those cases were forwarded to district attorneys and felony charges were filed.
“That resulted in using jail space for people with substance abuse problems and it created a revolving door,” Clarkson said. “We have people who aren’t getting treatment, getting released, ending up back in jail, and then prisons as they are charged with more, and higher level, felonies.”
The “felony resumes” become an impediment to gaining employment and housing, two of the primary factors that lead to homelessness.
“We’re trying to address a public health problem with the criminal justice system,” Clarkson said.
In 2015, the DA’s office began treating offenders found with controlled substances differently. More than 850 felony charges were lodged against those found in possession of a controlled substance, but another 555 charges were not filed against first-time offenders and those found in possession of only trace amounts of controlled substances.
“We’re shifting priorities away from felonies and to misdemeanors,” Clarkson said. “We also present some of those charged with lesser crimes with the opportunity to have the charges dismissed if they show strides toward rehabilitation.”
Lt. Tad Larson, of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, and Anne-Marie Bandfield, of the Marion County Public Health Department, explained how the CORT team has attempted to take on mental health issues encountered by police officers without immediate arrests and jail time.
“We have clinicians riding along with officers as a team to sites of disturbances,” said Bandfield. “In addition to that we have case managers, crisis prescribers and money to provide wraparound services that stop the recycling that happens with mental health issues that result in jail time.”
The result is lowered recidivism rates for mental health patients who stay connected to treatment, Bandfield said.
Both programs are part of a shift in approaching the problems related to homelessness, Clarkson said. It focuses on reducing harm for individuals and the community rather than attempting one-size-fits-all cures or hiding the problem individuals out of sight in correctional facilities.
“It requires redefining success, we’re no longer looking for perfection, we’re looking for better,” Clarkson said.