Colorado would outlaw using jails for mental health holds, increase services under $9.5 million proposal
March 6, 2017 | By Jennifer Brown
A $9.5 million proposal would outlaw locking people in jail when they are picked up on mental health holds and bolster the state’s network of crisis-response teams, walk-in treatment centers and transportation from rural Colorado.
A bill under consideration at the statehouse would ban the use of jails to house people who are a “danger to themselves or others” but have not committed any crime. Colorado is one of only six states that allows putting people who are suicidal or having mental health episodes behind bars.
“It’s a massive injustice,” said Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “It only makes a person’s mental health far, far worse to be not only in a state of crisis but now in jail.”
The legislation, combined with state human services department requests for marijuana tax funds totaling $9.5 million, describes a multilayered plan to provide better treatment for people with mental illness. The funds would support two-person mobile crisis teams, including a law officer and a behavioral health specialist, to intervene on mental health-related police calls and de-escalate situations more appropriate for mental health treatment than arrest.
The proposals also call for expansion of prebooking criminal justice diversion programs to treat mental illness, as well as additional training for law enforcement and other first responders. And they would expand crisis stabilization centers to make sure they can help people 24 hours per day and are closer to rural areas.
“You can’t do away with using jails without having other options,” said the legislation’s other lead sponsor, Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley.
A mental health hold is an “involuntary civil detention” of a person who has not committed a crime but is a danger to themselves or others. People can be held for up to 72 hours, though an evaluation can result in a longer commitment in a mental health facility.
In 2013, Gov. John Hickenlooper ramped up mental health treatment statewide with a $25 million initiative that created a crisis hotline and walk-in mental health crisis centers throughout the state. The latest proposals come after recommendations from the governor’s task force on mental health holds, which said in January that the state should outlaw using jails to house those who are in mental health crisis, as well as recommendations from the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
Current state law allows for detainment in a jail for up to 24 hours for a person on a mental health hold. Within a day, the person must go to a health facility for evaluation and treatment, but in rural areas, the nearest mental health center is often hours away. The situation leaves sheriff’s departments with three options: driving the person to another town and leaving the community with one fewer law officer; holding the person in jail; or releasing the person back to the community.
From January 2015 to April 2016, a single county in Colorado held 117 people in mental health crisis in jail because there were no available beds at treatment centers or no available transportation to those centers, according to state Department of Human Services documents provided to lawmakers.
The situation is especially dire in western Colorado. From Grand Junction, which has just 11 contracted mental health beds, the nearest crisis stabilization unit is 248 miles in Littleton, a four-hour drive one way.
Under the proposals, mobile crisis units would transport people in mental health crisis to the closest treatment option.
Colorado has a higher-than-average prevalence of mental health and substance abuse disorders compared with other states. Its suicide rate is sixth-highest in the country, and it is the only state where people “simultaneously abused” all four main categories of substances — alcohol, opioids, cocaine and marijuana — according to a 2015 survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Yet the state ranks in the bottom half when it comes to per capita spending for behavioral health.