Forensic Diversion shows new path for defendants experiencing mental health issues

June 27, 2017

Diversion Courts Program Manager Jean Dentinger (right) chats with a Mental Health Court participant.

It’s a Thursday in June and Jean Dentinger is traveling to the Multnomah County Justice Center, just like she’s done every Thursday in recent memory. When she gets there, she spends all morning paying close attention to every person coming in and out of the courtroom doors. She keeps a master list of everyone she thinks she can help.

Dentinger says she’s looking for the people who “don’t belong” in the criminal justice system. Those are people experiencing mental illness who are charged with crimes or probation and parole violations. Her goal? Get them out of jail and into treatment.

“It’s very hard to see someone who is very sick and in jail,” Dentinger says. “People who have severe mental illness don’t ask for it – it happens to them. That’s why we need to untangle them from the criminal justice system and get them into the right system.”

Dentinger is the manager for the Diversion Courts program and a 22-year veteran at the county. Her team, the Forensic Diversion Program, finds people experiencing mental health issues who are charged with crimes in Multnomah County. Then they work to remove those people from jail and connect them with the treatment they need to get their lives back.

Recently, Forensic Diversion has become a model program for the rest of the state. That’s because the team saves hundreds of taxpayer dollars every day they keep someone out of jail or the Oregon State Hospital. The result? Almost $2 million in savings each year by helping people experiencing mental health issues receive treatment in the community rather than jail or hospital beds.

The team’s accomplishments also come on the heels of a countywide investment in diversion programs, like the recently-launched Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion initiative. Diversion programs aim to get people out of jails and hospitals and into community-based mental health and addiction treatment programs.

It all started for Dentinger 10 years ago with a simple charge: reduce the number of Multnomah County residents, in the criminal justice system, receiving mental health treatment at the Oregon State Hospital.

At the time, it sounded like a difficult task. The hospital was at capacity with people facing prosecution for crimes due to mental illness. And Multnomah County had too many residents receiving treatment because they were found unable to “aid and assist” in their own defense.

Back then, Dentinger says, there wasn’t an easy way out of the criminal justice system for people needing mental health treatment. But she was determined to make an impact. That’s because Dentinger has devoted her entire career to serving others.

“I really started working with people experiencing severe mental illness back in the ‘80s,” she says. “I found this was a population I enjoyed working with. I was seeing people stuck in jail who shouldn’t have been incarcerated and I remember thinking, ‘Someone needs to speak up for these people.’”

Her time working on the ground level showed her where the system was coming up short. She saw firsthand how jail wasn’t helping people with mental health issues – it was making them sicker.

“It was a very siloed mentality,” she says. “Either you had mental illness or you were a criminal. But there are many people who are experiencing severe mental illness who aren’t criminals – and those are the people who need treatment.”

So when she got the opportunity to work with the courts, she jumped on it. She recruited case managers experienced in working with people charged with crimes. And she drew on her own experience helping people with mental health issues in the corrections system.

But before they could begin their work, they first had to earn the trust of the courts and public safety officials.

“We did brown bags in the beginning where we had to introduce ourselves to the judges and explain what we do,” Dentinger says. “They were skeptical at first, but when they saw us succeed they were more willing to partner with us.”

As time went on, the team helped person after person manage their mental health and addiction issues and ultimately get out of jail. But here’s the difference: most of the defendants actually stayed out of jail.

Dentinger says the turning point came a couple years into their pilot. That’s the first time she says she heard a judge say, “I want to speak with Forensic Diversion before I make a decision on this defendant.”

Now, she says, judges praise the program when she runs into them. And the Forensic Diversion team is involved with almost every active case at the Justice Center.

Here’s how it works: Dentinger’s staff receive referrals from mental health consultants inside the jail and public defenders who identify clients that might be eligible for Forensic Diversion. Then the staff meet with the client, explain who they are and what they do, and offer to help the client return to the community in exchange for mental health treatment.

Once a client gets involved with Forensic Diversion, the team helps them walk through the process of accessing a mental health provider. They help with basic needs, too, like securing food, clothing and shelter. They also involve the client’s parole and probation officers so they can witness their improvement.

The team partners with Department of Community Justice and operates a 21-bed, transitional housing program called Stabilization for Treatment Preparation (STP). The program gives clients a transitional place to stay while they are being linked to community services, receiving treatment and overcoming their legal issues.

Dentinger says many of the people they work with struggle with accomplishing lots of tasks at once. That’s why she says they need a structured program with someone on their side while they’re trying to get their lives back on track.

“Coming out of jail is very overwhelming for people,” Dentinger says. “Many of our clients have to follow a huge list of directives and it can be very confusing. I’ve sat with people and I, myself, have thought, ‘Dang. I wonder if I could remember to do all these things, myself.’”

Barry, who chooses not to use his last name, is one of those clients. He says before getting involved with Forensic Diversion, he was stuck in a cycle that always resulted in jail. He was also experiencing homelessness. He says his life changed when he got help from Dentinger’s team.

“Before (Forensic Diversion), I was living on the streets,” Barry says. “This program gives me a place to hang my hat, a reliable place to live, and resources for me to take care of the things I need to work on.”

All this would be impossible, Dentinger says, without cooperation from the judges and district attorneys. And then there’s the help from Central City Concern and the cities of Portland and Gresham, which all have coordinated with the county to make the program possible. Now, more than ever, she says, she’s witnessing leaders take a “recovery-oriented” approach to working with defendants experiencing mental illness.

Neal Rotman, who manages the county’s Community Mental Health Program, is Dentinger’s supervisor. He says he’s also seen improvement in how the community is addressing mental health. He credits the partnership between the law enforcement, criminal justice and legal systems with getting treatment for the people who need it.

“Mental illness is not a crime,” Rotman says. “I think as a community, we’re doing a better job at understanding that. And thanks to our collaboration with our partners we’re saving money and increasing the amount of people who are being restored in our community.”

Looking forward, Dentinger wants to see Forensic Diversion continue to expand. She hopes to see more housing resources for clients – especially women. And she’s excited about a court docket that’s devoted entirely to hearing cases that involve Forensic Diversion clients at risk of being ordered to the Oregon State Hospital.

“We’ve come such a long way,” Dentinger says. “It’s amazing to help someone regain a sense of control and safety in their life. You can see it in their body language: they feel better, they’re stable. That’s the goal. That’s what makes me feel better.”