IN RESPONSE | Bill’s demise was a blessing; mental illness isn’t cured in jail
Author: Colorado Politics - July 10, 2018 - Updated: July 9, 2018
Contrary to a recent op-ed authored by state state Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, the failure of a bill last session to allow excessive time frames to detain people with mental illness in jails was welcomed by numerous groups who have fought for years on behalf of this vulnerable population. This is because the bill was in violation of the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and would have established Colorado as first in the nation to codify, in perpetuity, the ill-advised policy of “jail-based restoration”.
The filibuster by state Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, that led to the demise of SB 18-252 is a well-established and appropriate tactic used by members of a legislative body, primarily in the minority, to express opposition to a policy. Acting on behalf of the broad advocate community that wished to see many of the provisions of the bill related to jail-based restoration struck or significantly amended, Sen. Aguilar had the full endorsement of her caucus and the chamber’s independent member which together comprised 17 of the 35-member Senate – one shy of a majority.
The reason for this opposition was legitimate:
• Jail restoration is bad policy. Jails are not suitable places to keep and treat individuals with mental illness. Any measure that increases the time a person deemed incompetent spends in jail leads to poorer health outcomes and increases the potential for additional charges, serious injury to the detainee, or injury to other inmates and staff. As drafted, SB 18-252 allowed detainees to wait indeterminately without a deadline to receive in-jail restoration and subsequent treatment.
• Colorado can and should embrace community-based treatment. Local mental health providers have stated their interest in offering appropriate and timely care to these individuals. While some barriers exist to this model they are not insurmountable, and all parties agree this direction is in the best interest of those needing help. Promoting more community-based treatment will also free up civil beds at our state mental health institutes – a resource that is needed to prevent individuals with severe mental illness from facing charges in the first place.
• The process was unduly hurried and lawmakers were misled. SB 18-252 was introduced in the last two weeks of the legislative session and legislators were told it was a “must do” bill for fear of the state incurring heavy fines if it failed. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state have continually sought remedies, not fines, and assured lawmakers that such serious fines are not immediate.
Rather than cry foul over a legitimate defensive tactic by community advocates that opposed a controversial and questionable policy, lawmakers and advocates should move forward and work together toward an agreeable resolution to this decade-old problem. Advocates acknowledge the challenges the state faces with respect to meeting the needs of individuals with mental illness in the judicial system. However, something must be done rather than use jails to warehouse this vulnerable population.
Support for community-based options over jails is held by a broad group of service providers and advocates for people with mental illness. We implore the Department of Human Services to work with the Judicial Department and lawmakers to engage community providers and advocates to develop a comprehensive community-based plan that is the first course of response to ensure that the rights of these individuals are protected and services are provided on a timely basis.
Mary Anne Harvey
Disability Law Colorado
Office of the State Public Defender
Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council