Mental health treatment program at Denver jail may expand to address state backlog

Currently, 450 people are waiting in Colorado jails for mental health treatment they need to stand trial in court.

DENVER — Hundreds of people accused of crimes in Colorado are waiting in jail for treatment. It’s treatment they need to finally stand trial. 

There’s not enough space at the state mental health hospital for everyone who needs help. It’s why Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) wants to allocate money to expand a program at Denver’s jail to help with this backlog. 

“When someone has a severe mental health illness, the criminal justice system goes to a complete stop. No trial. Nothing can happen until they are restored,” said Leora Joseph, the director for the Office of Civil and Forensic Mental Health at DHS.

A criminal case comes to a halt when a judge finds a defendant incompetent. It means a person can’t make rational decisions about their trial.

CDHS runs the state’s mental health hospitals. People go there for treatment so their case can move forward. The problem is that facilities are struggling to hire enough staff to open more beds. Because there isn’t enough room at the hospitals, 450 people are stuck in jail waiting for treatment. 

“We are very open to doing creative and different things,” said Joseph. 

CDHS now wants to expand a program they helped start a few years ago at Denver’s jail. The Denver Restoration Treatment Unit is separate from the main inmate population. 

There are 12 beds there now, and they want to add six more. 

“This will allow us to serve more people because they will be treated, restored to competency, reentering the criminal justice system,” said Joseph. 

CDHS said when hospitals were not able to serve during the pandemic they began to contract with a few mental health providers to offer services in jail. Those programs are in Arapahoe, Boulder and Denver counties. 

“We are proud of the partnership with the state and Denver Health Hospital Authority to do this important work. The need to help people lingering in facilities waiting for restoration has been a struggle for a long time and we hope to be able to provide more services moving forward,” said Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins.

CDHS said they have been doing this work in Denver since 2021. They have a contract with Denver Health to provide care at the jail. CDHS is finding people are restored quicker at county jail than at a state hospital.

“This program in the jail doesn’t take our most sick and our mostly highly criminally charged., so we are already culling out a population who aren’t as severely ill or serious charges,” said Joseph.

The department has about 70 open beds at the state hospital but they don’t have the staff to open them. 

In addition to problems with staffing and beds, Colorado has seen an increase in competency orders. 

Joseph said over the last few years there has been an 80% increase in judges ordering people to be restored to competency. 

“Our population coming in is much sicker,” she said. “This is happening at the same time we are facing this bed staffing crisis. All of this has led to a large waitlist of people waiting for services in jail.”

CDHS sees the expansion of the program in county jails as a temporary fix so cases can start up again. 

“This is not a solution for ever and ever. This is a solution for right now,” she said. 

The state is currently under a consent decree which means they pay $12 million a year in fines because they are not able to serve people who are suffering from severe mental illness. 

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