The state’s mental health chief is sending letters to judges asking for reprieves on behalf of individual mentally ill inmates facing low-level criminal charges as they sit in jail awaiting treatment before they can stand trial.
Office of Behavioral Health Director Robert Werthwein said there are roughly 130 people who have been sitting in jail for more than 28 days awaiting mental competency treatment to stand trial. For many of these people, this is more jail time than they would have faced had they just plead guilty for the original charge.
Werthwein wants judges to consider letting the low-level offenders out of jail to get outpatient treatment. He said he’s sent five to seven letters a week for the last few weeks and that some judges are taking notice.
“There are more people than there are beds” in jails, he said. “We’re just like, ‘hey can you please take another look at this to make sure they really need inpatient services because they may be taking a bed from someone who needs it.’”
The state has been sued for how they’ve handled people deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial three times since 2008.
Currently, the Department of Human Services is under a court order to move people through the system, evaluate whether they can stand trial, and get people mental health treatment within a month. But officials are currently in violation of that agreement. The court order came after three separate lawsuits were filed on behalf of Disability Law Colorado.
Iris Eytan, a private lawyer representing the organization, said when people sit in jail, problems get worse.
“I don’t know how anybody is sleeping. I really don’t know,” she said. “They’re jumping off second tiers at the Boulder County Jail. They’re ripping their ears out, gouge their eyes out. They bit a thumb off. It’s incredible.”
Four bills will be heard at the state Senate Judiciary Committee Monday that aim to help solve some of the problems, including one bill that shifts some behavioral health services to jails and another that gives judges power to develop alternative outpatient treatment programs for people with low-level criminal charges.
State officials also drafted a bill that changes some of the rules around competency evaluations — it is unclear whether that bill will garner the support of disability advocates.
Another bill supported by state officials allows people in jails to force medication on mentally ill people.
“The demand for mental health services is increasing,” Werthwein said. “I want people to get services and I want to be flexible enough to meet them where they are … I think we’re finally coming together as a group that says we all have ownership.”