The outside of building that is a part of the Denver Sheriff Department’s County Jail Division, taken on Feb. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
Next year, Colorado lawmakers will consider several bills that would change how the criminal justice system treats mentally ill people.
The General Assembly’s Legislative Council — a panel of top Democrats and Republicans in the Colorado Senate and House of Representatives — approved five bills proposed by a committee tasked with studying the treatment of people with mental health disorders in the criminal justice system. The mental health committee, chaired by Democratic state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Commerce City, developed the bills during the so-called interim period this summer and fall, when the full General Assembly was not in session.
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According to a survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 37% of people in prison and 44% of people in jail have been told they have a mental disorder.
State lawmakers will hear public testimony on the five bills and vote on them when they come back to the Capitol in January for the 2022 legislative session. While it’s not certain the bills will become law, legislation proposed by an interim committee and approved by the Legislative Council normally stands a good chance of passing.
The mental health committee’s five bills include:
• Bill A: Change the scope of the interim committee and its associated task force from the treatment of “mental health disorders” to the treatment of “behavioral health disorders,” a broader category that includes substance use disorders. Extend the committee and task force until July 1, 2027.
“The committee determined that there was a need (to expand the scope) because of co-occurring disorders,” Benavidez told the Legislative Council.
• Bill B: When a defendant in a criminal case is found not guilty by reason of insanity, require the judge to order an evaluation to determine whether the defendant should be placed in a hospital or whether they are eligible to be released into the community. Hold a hearing no later than 10 days after the evaluation is complete to decide where the defendant will go.
• Bill C: Establish pretrial diversion programs to identify eligible defendants with mental health or substance use disorders and send them to community treatment programs rather than jail. These programs would replace pilot mental health diversion programs that are set to repeal July 1, 2022.
• Bill D: Allow a person to be hospitalized for an emergency 72-hour treatment and evaluation when the person’s apparent mental health disorder or disability could present an imminent or substantial risk of harm to themselves or others.
“(For) people that, you know, they may not be … hurting themselves or others, but they really have no ability to maintain themselves or their care … this is the initial step to get them to be evaluated — maybe get them the treatment they need to be able to function on their own in society,” Benavidez said.
• Bill E: Expand training and technical assistance to help communities add supportive housing programs for people who have mental health or substance use disorders, who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and who are involved with the criminal or juvenile justice systems. Establish a grant program that provides funds to organizations developing supportive housing for this population.
Bills A and C were approved by all members of the Legislative Council who were present for the votes. Bills B, D and E each passed 11-6, with Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke, House Assistant Minority Leader Tim Geitner, Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument, House Minority Leader Hugh McKean and Republican Rep. Rod Pelton of Cheyenne Wells casting the six no votes each time.
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