Colorado's unique program to divert the mentally ill from jails and into treatment is celebrating its first year of operations, changing lives for the better and cutting costs to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The 18th Judicial District Mental Health Court (encompassing Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln, and Elbert counties) is the result of two years of planning by county and state mental health professionals and numerous agencies in response to the financial and human costs that accrued from ignoring the plight of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, costs deemed critical by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice in 2008.
According to statistics from the Colorado Department of Corrections, 24.6 percent of Colorado inmates suffer from a serious mental illness. Often they are unable to comprehend why they are in jail, and when their sentences are over, they are more likely to offend again, creating a vicious and costly cycle that drains resources. While incarcerated, they often face abuse and cause problems for prison staff, who are not trained to deal with the needs of the mentally ill. The new program is meant to cut such costs. Now, after only a year in existence, it seems to be working. None of the participants has reoffended, and the local and state savings reach almost half a million dollars.
“In just over a year, more than 30 people’s lives have been profoundly affected,” said Barbara Becker, ADMHN’s manager of criminal justice programs. “The program’s main goal is to stop the cycle of incarceration by focusing on and treating people’s mental illness and helping them re-enter and succeed in society.” Most of the program participants have substance abuse issues, and their addiction is often a secondary symptom to a mental illness, which they try to medicate with illicit drugs.
The court functions differently from the traditional adversarial model. The judge is more personable and encourages the defendants as she monitors their treatment and progress toward meaningful participation in society. The court is staffed by mental health professionals and case managers. The district attorney also closely monitors the offenders as they progress through the program.
Participation in the program is voluntary, and certain crimes, such as sex crimes, exclude eligibility. Program participants plead guilty to the crime with which they were charged, but instead of going to jail they end up in a secure facility where they receive counseling and medication. Failure to comply with the program may mean a return to jail.
For many, the program offers a way out of the vicious cycle of poverty, hopelessness, and substance abuse all of which end in criminal acts, which are often cries for attention and help.