Behavioral health law puts a detour around jail cells in Colorado mental health response

Author: Joey Bunch - May 19, 2017 - Updated: July 31, 2017

Jail cells are no longer a substitute for the help needed by people in behavioral and mental health crises in Colorado.

Thursday Gov. John Hickenlooper signed legislation on 72-hour mental health holds, a significant issue for Colorado’s far-flung rural areas, where proper help can be hours away. When there’s not a hospital nearby to take a person in crisis, a jail cell often is the landing spot, even if the person hasn’t committed a crime.

Colorado Politics’ Peter Marcus first told you about the dilemma and legislative efforts in January.

“Until now, people in Colorado could spend up to 72 hours in jail simply because they had a behavioral health issue and needed help,” said Nancy VanDeMark, director of the state’s Office of Behavioral Health, in a statement.

“Through the hard work of many people, we’re now able to expand and enhance the availability of crisis response services statewide. Coloradans in crisis will be connected with the right behavioral health services in an appropriate setting.”

Senate Bill 207 abolishes the practice of locking up people simply because of mental health distress. Instead, the new law creates a needs study, regional contractors, training for first-responders, community partnerships, mobile units and, by Jan. 1, a 24-hour walk-in center on the Western Slope.

The Department of Human Services, which runs the state’s response program, will get about $7.1 million from marijuana taxes next year and $7.4 million the next year to extend and bolster services across the state.

About $5.2 million a year will go toward law enforcement and mental health professionals working together on ways and means.

The bill had strong, diverse leadership. Republican John Cooke, the retired Weld County sheriff, and liberal attorney Daniel Kagan sponsored the bill in the Senate. In the House it was led by Deomocrat Joe Salazar, a civil rights lawyer and Democratic attorney general candidate, with former Top Gun pilot Lang Sias.

The legislation passed the Senate 27-6 and the House 51-14.

Lawmakers and DHS have been focused more intently on behavioral health response since the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, when clues were missed that might have led to a better intervention with gunman James Holmes, who killed 12 people and injured at least 70.

The next legislative session lawmakers passed Senate Bill 266 to appropriate about $29 million to create many of the services being extended to rural areas this year.

Four years ago the bill charged the Department of Human Services with creating a 24-hour hotline staffed by mental health professionals.

Since it launched in October 2014, the hotline has heard from 293,663 people, or about 1 in 20 Coloradans, according to DHS’s count.

The line can be reached at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or by texting TALK to 38255.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.