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AGUILAR | Take responsibility for inappropriately incarcerating people with mental illness

Author: Sen. Irene Aguilar - June 28, 2018 - Updated: June 25, 2018

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Colorado state Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver.

I was deeply offended by Sen. Kent Lambert’s June 18 opinion article impugning my motives for defeating, by filibuster, Senate Bill 18-252 on the closing day of session.  Passage of this bill would have made Colorado the only state in the nation to legally permit keeping non-convicted people with severe mental illness in jails for up to five months.

Even now, the state is holding people with mental illness in  jail for lengthy periods of time, infringing on their civil liberties and in direct contradiction to a 2012  federal agreement. This agreement prohibits the state from confining those with severe mental illness, who have been accused but not convicted, for more than 28 days in jail. They are being held because our state does not have the capacity to evaluate their competence to stand trial, or, once they are found incompetent, to provide adequate treatment to restore them to competence in a timely fashion.

When the legislative session ended, 269 Coloradans were jailed in 23 different counties, and held for up to 139 days.

What Senator Lambert fails to understand is that premier forensic psychologists maintain that people with significant mental illness need to be in a therapeutic environment to receive adequate treatment and evaluation. The inherent conflict of being in jail precludes people with severe mental illness from being able to respond to clinical intervention.

This opinion was affirmed by the state’s own expert, Dr. Joel Dvoskin. Both Senator Lambert and the governor’s office were aware of our expert’s view, though this information was not shared with the rest of the legislature.

As a physician, I can tell you that this is shoddy medical care.  To quote the nation’s leading expert, Dr. Neil Gowensmith, treating people with mental illness in jails is “in opposition to scientific evidence, recommendations from the American Bar Association, recommendations from the National Judicial Council, and any current practice employed in any state in our country.”

As an advocate for Colorado citizens, I was not willing to legalize a medically unsound practice for people with severe mental illness.

It is time for the State of Colorado to take responsibility for our people. The state must find and hire mental health professionals who can perform community-based assessments and treatment on those wrongfully jailed in a timely manner.  The state needs to comply with the court order and provide this service within 28 days of an order for evaluation and treatment, not 150 days.

The State of Colorado must treat all people with the dignity and respect they deserve and respect their right to freedom.

Sen. Irene Aguilar is a Denver Democrat.

Sen. Irene Aguilar

Sen. Irene Aguilar

State Sen. Irene Aguilar, MD, represents Denver’s Senate District 32 and is a Democrat. She sits on the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, the Senate Business, Labor & Technology Committee and the Colorado Health Insurance Exchange Oversight Committee.