Is it time to get serious?

But for one carelessly discarded cigarette that started Ashland's worst fire in at least a century, no one would know John Thiry's name. He would be just another homeless man with drinking problem, probably suffering from mental illness, shuttling in and out of jail for minor offenses and wandering the streets the rest of the time.

A year after the Oak Knoll fire, Thiry has become a symbol of a system that is not equipped to deal with him.

A Jackson County judge ruled he probably started the fire, but prosecutors could not prove he was aware of the danger of his actions, so he could not be convicted of reckless endangerment.

In the year since the fire that destroyed 11 homes, residents of Oak Knoll and other neighborhoods have banded together to reduce fire danger around their houses. The city of Ashland has upgraded its emergency hotline to handle more calls at one time. Next month, the city will launch a reverse 9-1-1 system, which can be used to notify residents on their home telephone lines.

The community has responded admirably to the threat of wildfire. But nothing has been done about the threat posed by Thiry and others like him.

Thiry, 40, has been jailed repeatedly since he was cleared of charges in the fire, first for throwing a traffic delineator off an overpass onto Interstate 5, and later for threatening two middle-school girls and throwing rocks at them. That case earned him a sentence of eight months in jail.

Thiry served two weeks. He was released last week to keep the jail from exceeding its self-imposed population cap of 230.

Public anger is a common and understandable reaction when someone like Thiry is released from custody. But without money to build more jail and prison space, authorities' hands are tied. And without resources to help the mentally ill before they commit serious crimes, the system doesn't do a very good job of protecting the public.

Mental health advocates have been trying to build support for a mental health court in Jackson County. Modeled after drug courts aimed at defendants with substance abuse problems, mental health courts work in conjunction with police and community agencies to get low-level offenders the help and treatment they need.

Several Oregon counties, including Josephine, have such courts, but not Jackson County. Starting a mental health court will take money the county doesn't have.

Such a court might have helped Thiry, but only before he committed a crime involving violence. Mental health courts typically do not accept those who have committed crimes against people. He also would be required to have a diagnosed mental illness to be eligible, and he would have to cooperate with treatment for that illness and for his alcohol abuse.

The courts can require mental health treatment as part of sentencing, but only in felony cases. So far, Thiry has been convicted only of misdemeanors.

And even if he had served his full eight-month sentence, Thiry would have been released eventually.

Oregon voters have willingly approved get-tough-on-crime ballot measures that require longer prison sentences, but without the revenue to pay for additional prison space. Perhaps it's time for a get-serious-about-mental-illness measure, with the funding to back it up.

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