Colorado's jails and prisons have long been the primary repository for those who suffer with mental illness and, as a result, get entangled in the criminal justice system.
They are five times more likely to be in jail or prison than in a hospital bed, as Rocky Mountain PBS I-News reported in its Untreated series on the costs of mental illness in the state. It's hard to find anyone who thinks that status quo is a good thing.
Said Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor, “These people don’t need to be in jail. They need to be in a therapeutic community.”
“Years ago we deinstitutionalized mental health treatment,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle told I-News. “People felt it was shameful that we had people in custody or locked up in mental health facilities. Now, instead, we lock them up in jail.”
Changes in the system, however slow, are coming. The state established a directive this year that stipulates that those with mental illness should no longer be held in long-term solitary confinement in state prison cells, a practice that is still prevalent in county jails.
And in Colorado Springs, another small step toward reform was registered this summer when the mental health court in the Fourth Judicial District reported its first graduate.
This particular defendant was jailed for assaulting a police officer after being stopped for driving under the influence. He was diverted to Judge Deborah Grohs' mental health court when it was found that bipolar disorder may have played into his actions.
Rather than a jail sentence, the defendant ended up a year-and-a-half later with a certificate of graduation. Typically, in one of the state's so-called "problem-solving courts," that involves assigning mentors and case managers to defendants to arrange health care, counseling and substance abuse treatment. Their progress is closely monitored while they're on probation.
The jails have become the mental health institutions, Judge Grohs told The Gazette of Colorado Springs. Her willingness to take on a different approach is a step in the right direction.