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    FAQ: Colorado Mental Health Courts: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

    What is a mental health court?

    A mental health court uses a problem-solving process to provide community-based alternatives to incarceration for offenders with a major mental illness who are charged with offenses. As of October 1, 2009, the 18th Judicial District has operated a new mental health court for certain adult offenders who have mental illness. The court has been set up based on research and other model courts around the country that have proven results (an evidence-based model). It is based on a problem-solving model, rather than the more traditional adversarial court process. The problem-solving approach focuses on how and why the person became involved in the criminal justice system, and provides interventions to stop the cycle of incarceration. A mental health court uses intensive case management and mental health treatment for offenders to help them break the cycle of revolving-door recidivism.

    What are the benefits of a mental health court?

    For offenders with mental illness, mental health courts have proven to help:

    reduce incarceration in correctional facilities;
    reduce recidivism;
    improve the quality of life for individuals with mental illness in the criminal justice system;
    improve public safety. In doing so, we realize
    significant cost savings.

    What is unique about the 18th Judicial District’s Mental Health Court?

    While some mental health courts work with offenders charged with misdemeanors and municipal offenses, the18th Judicial District Mental Health Court is the first court in Colorado to also work with non-violent felony offenders.

    On October 1, the Mental Health Court held its very first case.

    With Magistrate Laura Findorff presiding, the 18th Judicial District’s Mental Health Court began operations on October 1, 2009. This was made possible by partial funding from a Colorado Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) and a JAG Recovery Act award. The court plans to accept approximately 30 clients in its first year, and will expand in future years. It is hoped that a similar court for juveniles will be developed.

    Two years of planning and significant community collaboration went into developing the court.
    The Mental Health Court in the 18th Judicial District became a reality after two years of careful planning. It began as the vision of three Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network (ADMHN) board members: John Phillips, Richard Spiegle and ‘Nita Brown.

    A steering committee led the way.

    On behalf of a steering committee – Chief Judge William Sylvester, District Attorney Carol Chambers, Public Defender James O’Connor, Community Resources Director Don Klemme and ADMHN Chief Operating Officer Joan DiMaria- Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network secured a U.S. Department of Justice Byrne Grant to employ attorney Gina Shimeall as planning coordinator. Guided by national research (especially that of the Bureau of Justice Assistance/Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project),

    Shimeall led a highly collaborative process to develop comprehensive court policies and procedures, legal requirements, treatment protocols and evaluation plans.

    The community collaborated to make this Mental Health Court a reality.

    This work represents the collective efforts of more than 60 people, including representatives from the offices of the chief judge, district attorney, public defender, assistant prosecutors, other attorneys, pre-trial services, community corrections, jail staff, probation, county riminal justice planners, Arapahoe County Community Services, Arapahoe and Douglas county sheriffs’ departments, pre-trial services, mental health agencies, county housing services, and other human services agencies.

    Note: This project was supported by Grant No. 2009-SU-B9-0020 and No. 2009-DJ-BX-0002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Office for Victims of Crime. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not represent the official position or policies of the United States Department of Justice.

    What was the impetus for creating the 18th Judicial Mental Health Court?

    Like the rest of the state, the 18th Judicial District (which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln and Elbert counties) has been greatly affected by the growing number of seriously mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system. The issue was identified as a critical problem in 2008 by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. In the prior year, a Metro Area County Commissioners Task Force gathered law enforcement, county officials, criminal justice and mental health agencies and concerned individuals for an extensive analysis of the gaps in the criminal justice/mental health systems. Resulting recommendations included a mental health court in this jurisdiction.

    The statistics are compelling.

    Arapahoe County Detention Center data for 2008 shows that 20 – 25% of the jail population was being treated for a serious mental illness, as compared to the national average of approximately 6% of the general population. The Douglas County Detention Center reported 15% of its population with mental illness in the same year.  Based on national research, it is reasonable to assume that 76% of those inmates also have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder. Offenders with an Axis I diagnosis stay in jail longer than those without (102 days versus 33 days in Arapahoe County), and cost 44% more to incarcerate ($93 vs. $68).

    The goal is to put a stop to revolving-door recidivism.

    Individual judges can, and often do, sentence offenders to community-based treatment and supervision programs on an individual basis. However, this has not always solved the problem because: 1) the system has not been able to adequately identify mental illness in offenders; 2) judges and criminal justice system personnel often require more specialized knowledge as to how factors such as substance abuse, criminal behavior, and mental illness interplay; 3) many mental health providers have inadequate understanding of the criminal justice system; and 4) there have been no formal procedures that cross the boundaries of the judicial, mental health and law enforcement systems to efficiently and effectively manage more than a few individual cases. As a result, many individual cases are disposed but not truly resolved and the underlying issues of severe mental illness are not addressed. Therefore, the problems often resurface as new cases. In fact, mentally ill offenders have higher rates of recidivism than other inmates.

    Who may participate in the 18th Judicial District’s Mental Health Court program?

    An offender may be recommended to participate in this court program if the individual:

    1. Is competent.
    2. Has an Axis I diagnosis (a major mental illness such as bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression or mental illness/substance abuse dual diagnosis),
    3. Has a pending non-violent, non-sex offense felony or felony probation violation, and history, and
    4.Has been screened and approved by the Mental Health Court Program’s treatment and court teams.

    Participation in the mental health court program is voluntary. Particpants must live in Arapahoe County, due to limited resources and the intensive case-management component of the program.

    How does the Mental Health Court program in the 18th Judicial District work?

    A referral must be made.

    Generally, the individual will be recommended to the program by the public defender, defense attorney, probation, district attorney or Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network staff who work in the jails. The application screening and review process is a cross-system collaboration between the District Attorney’s office, defense attorneys, law enforcement, probation, the Mental Health Court, and the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network Mental Health Court Treatment Team.

    Adherence to a strict plan is mandatory.

    An individualized treatment and supervision plan is developed and must be approved by the court for the participant, who must agree to all court terms and conditions. It is a rigorous program, requiring adherence to an intensive community-based treatment plan based on the Forensic ACT model. Particpants in the beginning phases of the program are required to have weekly court appearances, frequent substance abuse testing (urine analysis and BA?), daily contact with case managers, mandatory groups, and curfews. Community-based treatment is provided by the Mental Health Court Treatment Team, comprised of staff from Arapahoe / Douglas Mental Health Network Court probation staff.

    Why is housing so important?

    Housing solutions for participants is a key component of the program.  Statistics show that more than 80% of mentally ill individuals involved in the criminal justice system are homeless.)

    How does one “graduate” from the program?

    The successful participant graduates through three phases of the program that dictate the frequency of court appearances, drug testing, treatment group contacts and other conditions. Incentives are given for success, and compliance issues are subject to sanctions by the court. Repeated violations can lead to resentencing. The length of time to graduation is estimated at between 18 months to two years.

    Contact us the Program:

    To learn more about the 18th Judical District’s Mental Health Court, contact Deputy Court Administrator Shaun Clark at [email protected].

    Referrals to the Mental Health Court can be made to Gina Shimeall, 18th Judicial District Mental Health Court Coordinator, 7305 South Potomac, Centennial, CO 80112 or contact Gina at [email protected].

    For more information on mental health and substance abuse treatment services for the court, and other Criminal Justice programs provided by Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network, contact the Criminal Justice Services team at 303-996-6120.

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    H. Michael Steinberg Esq.
    Attorney and Counselor at Law
    The Colorado Criminal Defense Law Firm of H. Michael Steinberg
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    Colorado Criminal Law For Over 40 Years.
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