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FORMER HEAD PUBLIC DEFENDER URGES DECRIMINALIZATION OF NON-VIOLENT OFFENSES INVOLVING PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

FORMER HEAD PUBLIC DEFENDER URGES DECRIMINALIZATION OF NON-VIOLENT OFFENSES INVOLVING PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS
by Theresa Schiavone

Jail has become the largest domicile for people with mental illness in Colorado, says the man who led the state public defenders office for more than a decade; and, says Douglas Wilson, criminal proceedings involving the mentally ill could be avoided by handling non-violent offenders in civil court. Wilson told a group at NAMI Denver’s Education Night about a woman, who had cycled through the court system seven times. She was arrested for criminal trespass, and was jailed and found mentally incompetent. Then she was sent to a treatment facility where she was given medication. With medication she was found competent, and was sent back to jail. Without continued medication in jail, she was again found incompetent. It turns out the formularies for medications at different institutions are different, not to mention that getting medications in jail can take time… enough time for mentally ill people to decompensate.

Wilson maintains that Colorado’s backlog of incompetency cases—involving those people deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial for breaking laws—can be connected to the recycling of these offenders in the criminal system with inadequate coordination with mental health support.

Long term prospects for those with mental illness in jail are worse, says Wilson. [District attorneys] want to be able to hit that sweet spot. Get them in court, get the deal done. And the problem with that is… they’re going to be forced into some sort of treatment program, they’re not going to follow through. They’re not going to see their PO [probation officer]. They’re not going to be taking their meds, and now you’ve got them on a probation notification… and it’s a slow boat to prison.” Wilson adds that sometimes, disoriented in jail, those with mental illness can rack up charges that can result in lengthy prison stays.

With the move away from mental health institutions in the 1980’s, Wilson says, “the promise that we made was that we would put monies into the communities, … and we never met that promise. And now it’s 35 years later and we still continue to underfund community mental health centers. And jails and prisons are still the number one mental health centers in Colorado and in many other places across the country. “

After a lawsuit filed by Disability Law Colorado, the state agreed to mediate the backlog of incompetency cases resulting in mentally ill people languishing in jails. But the problem will continue, in Wilson’s view, unless we decriminalize non-violent cases involving people with mental illness.

Wilson is a member of the national advisory board of Equitas, “a foundation,” he says, “that is trying both inside and outside of the system to …make some changes as they relate to mental health and the criminal system.” Another member of this group, says Wilson, is Steven Leifman, an associate administrative judge for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida. Leifman has made a career out of keeping mentally ill people out of jail and offering them coordinated, community-based mental health care in Miami-Dade County. (Miami-Dade County may have the highest rate of mental illness in the nation. 20% of arrests there involve a person with mental illness.) (Buntin). In 2000 Leifman launched a mental health project in Miami-Dade that steered people with mental illness, who didn’t pose a threat to public safety, away from the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment. In 2020, Leifman is scheduled to open a Mental Health Diversion Center, a public-private mental health facility in Miami-Dade for people with serious mental illness who are frequent users of the criminal justice, mental health, and primary care systems. The center will provide a range of mental health and primary healthcare services, as well as assistance with housing, employment training, daily activities and courtroom support. (“Judge Steven Leifman Awarded 2018 Pardes Humanitarian Prize…”)

Since the advent of Leifman’s innovative programs, the arrest rates in Miami-Dade have been cut in half, and the jail population plunged from 7,300 to 4,000. One jail was closed, generating 12-million-dollars in annual savings. (“Judge Steven Leifman Awarded 2018 Pardes Humanitarian Prize…”)

Why can’t we do that in Colorado? Wilson says it’s up to the state’s 22 district attorneys.

Wilson recommends bringing Leifman to Colorado to attend judicial conferences to share insights about his successes with coordinated, community-based, civil programs in Miami-Dade. Wilson also urges separating human services and the child welfare division. As it is now, he says, it’s too big. He also looks to new Attorney General Phil Weiser to bring a fresh approach to the issue. And he advises us to stay on top of it.

WORKS CITED

Buntin, John, Miami’s Model for Decriminalizing Mental Illness in America,”
GOVERNING: THE STATES AND LOCALITIES, August 2015.

“Judge Steven Leifman Awarded 2018 Pardes Humanitarian Prize for Leadership in
reducing the Number of People with Mental Illness in Jail and Prison,” THE
MANNERS DOTSON GROUP, LLC, September 5, 2018, New York.

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