State officials have asked lawmakers to give them 150 days to treat mentally ill people while they sit in jail before trial — or they go to the state mental health hospital.
Colorado is also asking for 45 days, starting from when a person is booked into jail, to complete mental health competency evaluations for people facing criminal charges.
The proposals, part of a package of bills being considered at the state legislature, are more lenient than what is currently allowed by a court order reached after the state has been sued three times in ten years for not treating mentally ill inmates in a timely way.
“We’re all talking about a significant reform of our system,” said Reggie Bicha, director of the state Department of Human Services. “The simple reality is we have a serious problem on our hands that gets more severe each year.”
The state is already in violation of that court order and settlement agreement.
Currently, about 130 people have been awaiting mental health treatment for more than a month while they sit in jail on pending charges. They aren’t receiving any treatment in jail either and the state faces millions of dollars in sanctions because of this violation.
Doug Wilson, the state’s lead public defender, said “it’s unacceptable.”
Bicha said it’s a matter of skyrocketing numbers of people who need mental health treatment in jail. In 2001, 429 people received mental health competency evaluations; in 2017, that number had quintupled to 2,277.
Colorado simply doesn’t have enough mental health hospital beds to meet the need. They keep adding beds every year, including almost 100 in this current state budget, but it is not enough.
Officials say they want to figure out a solution that includes treating people with mental illness in jail, including allowing sheriff’s deputies to forcibly medicate inmates. They also are asking judges to release some people in jail facing low-level charges and encouraging more cooperation between judges and district attorneys and community mental health centers.
“As a state, we need to think about what the appropriate level of care is to serve that person’s need, the specific need here, the state’s interest is competency restoration,” said Patrick Fox, the former chief medical officer for the Department of Human Services. “And do so in the most economical and most effective fashion.”
Mental health advocates and public defenders don’t like mentally ill people being treated in jail — particularly those facing low-level criminal charges. They say the best place for them is out from behind bars and in the community mental health care system, but the state hasn’t worked hard enough to set up those channels.
Advocates are also opposing the 150-day timeframe proposed by state officials. They say that’s too long to sit in jail — and perhaps even be forcibly medicated — without being convicted of anything.
They are asking lawmakers to amend that to 60 days.
“We agreed on some timeframes that were constitutionally permissible in our minds, but still a little lenient,” said Iris Eytan, a lawyer representing Disability Law Colorado, which has settled three lawsuits against the Department of Human Services since 2008. “They’re in violation of the agreement now.”
In the final few days of the legislative session, the bills will likely get a final vote in the Senate by the end of the week and will then go to the House for consideration.