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Colorado lawmakers discuss mental health treatment in the criminal justice system

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Posted at 7:01 PM, Sep 08, 2021

DENVER — An interim legislative committee met at the Colorado State Capitol Wednesday to hold a public hearing on the treatment of people with mental health disorders within the criminal justice system.

The committee is working to understand what is happening within the system and how the state can help. The goal is to come up with bills to propose during the 2022 legislative session.

“We have basically turned into the mental health facilities across the state. The Department of Corrections is technically the largest mental health provider in the state of Colorado,” said Captain Jamison Brown, the president of the Colorado Jail Association.

According to Colorado Department of Corrections data from June, roughly 5,477 people in their facilities have mental health needs, making up 33% of their overall inmate population.

Of those, 1,198 inmates, or 22% of the inmate population, are facing serious mental health illnesses.

Brown testified at Wednesday’s hearing about the strain the mental health needs are creating for jails and prisons across the state.

“Jail is not a place for people to go heal. Jail is a horrible place for people to come with a mental health issue. It’s very hard, it’s very cold, it’s very secure,” Brown said.

While areas like Denver and the Front Range have resources available to help, rural areas like Gunnison and Mesa counties are struggling to find care for their jail populations.

Brown says many hospitals won’t accept these patients, so often times deputies have to try to send them to the state hospital in Pueblo for help. The drive to the facility can be upwards of six hours, and there is a long waitlist to be able to get a bed.

“We’re trying to do the best that we can,” Brown said. “What we really need to see happen is open up some resources across the state.”

During his testimony, he pleaded with lawmakers to include the voice of the jail association in its conversations when drafting legislation.

The wait for treatment is something Sarah Morales knows a lot about. For more than a decade, Morales’s son has been in and out of hospitals and the jail system for mental health issues. He’s been hospitalized more than 30 times.

In December, her son’s father called the police on him for trespassing, simply to get someone to help. He was arrested and has spent the last nine months in jail waiting to be admitted into the state hospital before he can stand trial.

“We thought he would get into the state hospital in Pueblo much earlier,” Morales said. “He’s not getting better, and I don’t know what to do to help. I just feel powerless to try to help him.”

She believes her son is actually getting worse in jail, not better. Morales would like to see more mental health services provided within jails to help while inmates are waiting for treatment and more community awareness around mental health needs.

“I would like to see an emphasis on funding for more inpatient beds at the state hospital so that we can avoid the situation of people being unnecessarily jailed when they’re really just sick,” she said.

Natalia Marshall is also eager to see what legislation comes out of the interim committee’s work. Marshall’s uncle, Michael, died after an altercation with deputies during a psychotic episode in 2015.

The City of Denver agreed to pay his family $4.6 million for his death.

“There was no reason for my uncle to be arrested in the first place. They could’ve called family members and we could’ve been there,” Marshall said.

Since then, the family has been fighting for reforms, from police use of force to mental health.

“It’s just a lot of hard work,” Marshall said.

Recently, another loved one has started to display mental health issues, and Marshall has been trying to find him help but said the process has been difficult.

“I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to get help,” she said. “The system is so rigged against mental health that it’s crazy, and I didn’t realize how hard it was to get help.”

She would like to see lawmakers come up with bills to help connect families with more resources to help their loved one with long-term care.

Along with testimony from the jail association, committee members also listened to recommendations from members of the Mental Health Disorders in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems task force.

Among the recommendations: expand bed capacity with money from the American Rescue Plan Act, provide more housing resources so that people suffering from mental illness don’t end up in jails and dedicate more money to supportive resources among other things.

“What I want to see us do is build a continuum of care so that we have hospital beds for people who are coming from jails or who are connected to the criminal justice system,” said Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder, one of the committee members. “The other thing we need to do is divert people away from the criminal justice system before they enter the criminal justice system.”

She’s also part of a group looking to transform the state’s overall mental health care system.

She believes the state is criminalizing mental illness, noting that Colorado is 47th in the nation for mental health resources. She says there’s nowhere to go but up.

“The more we can do to help people before they’re in crisis, the better off will be,” she said.

The committee will meet again Thursday and intermittently before the legislative session to try to draft bills to be introduced that can help.