Colorado doesn’t have enough resources to treat people deemed incompetent to stand trial, so the state is turning to private hospitals

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The El Paso County Jail in Colorado Springs, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021.

Using almost $20 million in emergency COVID relief dollars, the governor is renting private hospital beds across the state to treat people sitting in jails who need mental health competency restoration.

The emergency funding comes as 363 critically mentally ill people sit incarcerated across Colorado, pre-trial, waiting for treatment or medication before they can face the, often minor, criminal charges filed against them. One person has waited nearly a full year for this treatment.

“I feel horrible about this waitlist, it’s just growing and it’s terrible,” said Robert Werthwein, director of the Office of Behavioral Health at the Colorado Department of Human Services, which is charged with competency restoration for people inside the criminal justice system. “No one knows how long this is going to last.”

Treatment backlogs have long been a problem in Colorado and after several lawsuits over a decade, the state is currently under a federal court order to evaluate people for mental health competency and then try to restore them in a timely way.

For about a year, state officials were doing better on this front. There were still waitlists, but they were shrinking and officials were staying on top of evaluations in jails.

But then the pandemic hit. And orders for competency evaluations shot up, from about 175 orders a month to more than 350 now. There is also an ongoing health care staffing crisis — particularly at the state’s largest mental health hospital, the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. 

State officials have fully shuttered three units, or about 70 beds, at CMHI because they don’t have enough staff.

There is capacity in private hospitals, though. 

Werthwein said the emergency money will pay for about 64 private hospital beds scattered around the state to move people from jail to a health care setting for restoration, which should immediately start to cut down the waitlist.

“No one can predict how long this pandemic is going to last, or this staffing crisis,” Werthwein said. “Just because we don’t know how long this is going to last, we didn’t want to wait.”

Werthwein suggested the state may also take other measures, but didn’t specify what those would be.