Colorado’s criminal justice system has a mental health crisis. Will the state change its approach?

Lawmakers wonder whether the state task force that studies the issue and recommends solutions should be renewed

Handcuffs at the Alamosa County jail. (Photo by Evan Semón)

Officials agree that growing numbers of people with mental health disorders in Colorado’s criminal justice system is a crisis. 

But, in a hearing this week at the Capitol, several lawmakers said that the 20-year-old task force set up to help address that challenge has been hamstrung by a lack of staff, a lack of authority and a lack of data and resources to answer some basic questions about the effectiveness of the state’s approach. 

Some of those lawmakers said they’re leaning toward voting against reauthorizing the committee when its charge expires in a year.

Task force members presented Tuesday to lawmakers at the Capitol, highlighting the group’s achievements but also confessing at multiple turns that the 32 people who comprise the group — including mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and judges — sometimes aren’t sure what their collective purpose is. 

The task force’s chairs said they lacked data to respond to a number of questions from lawmakers. They also said the group is limited in how blunt it can be in its guidance to the legislature, because some members represent state agencies and are afraid to support certain recommendations that might contradict their bosses’ goals.

“It just seems like the task force is somewhat in this paralyzed, stagnated situation,” said state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who serves on the bipartisan oversight group. “It sounds like the task force is floundering based on political stuff. And we just don’t have time for that.” 

Fields said she’s inclined to vote to end the task force. But she and the rest of the oversight committee have time to think that through.

The task force was formed in 1999 as an attempt by lawmakers to better understand and respond to the increasing presence of people with behavioral and mental health disorders in jails and prisons, or otherwise interacting with the criminal justice system. 

In the late ‘90s, state officials estimated that about one in 10 people held in state Department of Corrections facilities suffered from such disorders. Today they estimate it’s closer to half.

“If the intent (of the task force) was to reduce these numbers,” said Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, an Adams County Democrat and oversight committee member, “we’ve failed miserably.”

Benavidez, who said she’s also torn about whether to reauthorize, didn’t blame the task force. She partially attributed the increased presence of people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system on the societal shift to more aggressively and specifically diagnose mental illness. But she also blamed the increase on systemic neglect of the individuals the task force is meant to serve.

The task force has worked on many successful bills over the years, including recent measures to provide housing vouchers to people suffering from mental illness upon release from incarceration; to clarify what exactly it means to be mentally unfit to stand trial; and to ensure that various state agencies and officials better coordinate delivery of medication to people in custody.

“If the intent (of the task force) was to reduce these numbers, we’ve failed miserably.” — Rep. Adrienne Benavidez

But, in light of the general increase in the affected population’s presence in jails and prisons, Fields wondered whether more could be done to divert vulnerable people away from the system to begin with.

“I’d like to see us work somewhat upstream, so that first of all we’re not incarcerating young people because they have a mental behavioral disorder,” she said, before asking the task force chair to share data that shows whether the state is making any progress in this area as compared to 20 years ago.

“We would like that information as well,” said the chair, Moses Gur of the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council. “We don’t have any mechanism to collect our own data. … We’ve been asking ourselves the very same questions.”

That’s a big part of the problem with this group, several lawmakers agreed. Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat, said the lack of relevant data to inform decision-making on this front is unsurprising, given that the task force has no dedicated employees.

“This is all unpaid time, or state departments allocating their members to be a part of this,” he said.

Singer asked the task force’s leaders to describe their “a-ha moments” since joining the group. One of them said her biggest “a-ha” takeaway is that, in general, there’s now strong consensus that there is a mental health crisis within the criminal justice system.

Moses Gur said the question now is how the task force, if and when it is reauthorized, can be empowered to more effectively address the crisis.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear to us,” he said, “that we need some direction from (lawmakers).”

Said a skeptical Fields, “The way you guys have described the reauthorization, I’d think that I’d be reauthorizing the same old thing. … It feels like a wheel that’s spinning in mud, where there’s no much traction going on.”

1 COMMENT

  1. The criminal justice system creates the mental health crisis in the prisons then releases it to the the streets

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