Colo. Counties Unite To Keep Mentally Ill Out Of Jail

By Sarah Martinson | February 7, 2021, 8:02 PM EST

Law enforcement officials in counties across the state of Colorado are working to keep mentally ill people out of their jails and prisons by creating new programs to detect mental health problems before these individuals enter the criminal justice system.

One of the programs that Colorado counties have implemented is a co-responder program in which a trained mental health specialist answers crisis calls with sheriffs and deputies. Through this program, sheriffs and deputies are better able to de-escalate situations and direct mentally ill individuals to the appropriate resources, according to Colorado law enforcement officials.

Sheriff Joe Pelle of Boulder County said at Mental Health Colorado's virtual summit on Thursday that the county's co-responder program is indispensable to law enforcement officers and that he wishes the county had more co-responders so that they would be available for officers 24/7.

"I've gotten emails from police officers and deputy sheriffs speaking in awe of the co-responders and the help that they received on crisis calls," Pelle said.

In El Paso County, Colorado's largest county, its co-responder program was able to divert 99% of its callers from jail in 2020. Sixty-five percent of these calls were related to disturbances, criminal trespassing, welfare checks and suspicious incidents, according to the county.

More than 20 panelists spoke at Colorado Mental Health's four-hour virtual summit about how their counties are working to prevent mentally ill residents from ending up in jail. The panelists included county sheriffs, mental health professionals and prosecutors.

Even though Colorado counties have been working for years to better assist mentally ill residents, Colorado only ranked No. 33 in the nation for providing mental health services to adults in 2020, according to Mental Health America, a national affiliate of Colorado Mental Health.

In the event that Colorado county law enforcement officers miss the signals of mental illness and people who have mental illness end up in court, state county prosecutor offices have also created their own mental health diversion programs.

Michael Dougherty, district attorney for the 20th judicial district in Boulder County, said that through the program people are screened for mental health issues at their first court appearance and 75% of participants had a mental health problem.

"A jail cell is the last place someone should be who is in the midst of a mental crisis," Dougherty said.

The panelists said that their biggest concern for maintaining these programs is funding. Currently, these programs are funded by grants and local taxes. A number of the co-responder programs were awarded five-year grants from Colorado Department of Human Services' Office of Behavioral Health, according to the panelists.

In July, the county mental health diversion programs lost state funding as a result of budget cuts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dougherty.

"Defunding the mental health diversion program is a step in the wrong direction," he said.

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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