Pre-arrest diversion programs could have saved Michael Marshall

Michael Lee Marshall was killed by sheriff's deputies, but his death wasn't an isolated incident. It was part of a larger systemic problem in which mental illness is criminalized.

Last November, 50-year-old Michael Marshall suffered an acute psychotic episode —symptomatic of his chronic schizophrenia —while in custody at a Denver detention center. Multiple deputies forcibly restrained the 130-pound, 5’3” man for thirteen minutes, during which time he choked on his own vomit. Mr. Marshall died ten days later when his family made the heartbreaking decision to discontinue life support.  The coroner ruled his death a homicide, but the District Attorney determined that the deputies involved should not face prosecution.

Contemplating what could have prevented this tragedy begins with acknowledging what most certainly doomed Marshall—a system that punishes rather than protects our most marginalized community members. Policies and protocols implicate poorly-trained jail staff in the management of mental health conditions and substance use issues. Related symptoms can sometimes be alarming, but they are preventable and treatable with appropriate care. Conditions and collateral consequences of incarceration only make matters unnecessarily traumatic or even lethal, yet we continue to pour our money into this warped approach.

Marshall isn’t alone in being funneled repeatedly into an overcrowded facility woefully ill-equipped to care for him or in being subjected to extreme force while in custody. Denver County Jail has been called a de facto “mental institution” because a fifth of the population has a serious mental illness. Individuals experiencing homelessness in Denver, as Marshall was, receive more than half of all trespass citations despite making up only a half a percent of the population—indeed, this was the charge that fatefully put Marshall behind bars. Nationally, at least one in four fatal police encounters involve someone with mental illness. And regardless of substance abuse or commonly co-occurring mental illness, drug possession alone drives the majority of the 1.5 million annual drug arrests in the U.S. At best, we are spinning our wheels with this wasteful status quo. At worst —as in Marshall’s case and far too many others — we’re maintaining a vicious, deadly cycle of mass criminalization.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Decision makers can reallocate resources to necessary service provision instead of relentlessly caging vulnerable people. Alternative approaches that reduce the role of criminalization, particularly in local drug control and mental health, are especially promising. Programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) better equip police to identify and direct needy individuals to resources like drug treatment, mental health services, and housing supports at the pre-booking stage.

And benefits don’t stop at reducing needless arrests for petty offenses. An extensive evaluation of the innovative LEAD model shows it also lowers prosecution and incarceration numbers while simultaneously reducing recidivism. This cuts down on criminal justice costs, saving taxpayer money while improving quality of life among participants and bolstering police/community relations. It’s a win for virtually all stakeholders—except maybe the private prison industry and beneficiaries of policing for profit.

Once acknowledging that our system of mass criminalization played a role in Marshall’s death, we clearly see what may have prevented this tragedy. It is well past the time to stop using jails as subpar social service providers and instead focus our resources on actually improving public health and safety. Sensible fiscally and ethically responsible jail diversion programs will save lives.


Art Way is the senior director of criminal justice reform strategy and Colorado’s state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Alan Cleaver, Creative Commons, Flickr