Boulder County officials join to boost diversion for those with mental illness
May 29, 2018 | By Mitchell Byars
Boulder County prosecutors, public defenders and sheriff’s staff are all teaming up to introduce a diversion program that keep people with mental health issues accused of crimes out of jail and offer them treatment instead of prosecuting them.
Boulder County is one of four planned pilot programs in Colorado that will get funding from the state once Senate Bill 18-249 goes into effect.
“I’m excited about this project,” said Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who worked with Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle and Doug Wilson with the state public defender’s office to make sure Boulder was one of the pilot counties. “I really think this is the exact thing we should do to help people with mental health issues.”
Under the diversion program, people taken to the Boulder County Jail and accused of lower level offenses and dealing with mental health issues will go through a screening to see if they are a good fit for the program. If they are accepted, prosecutors would not file charges and instead release the defendants so they can instead go through either 200 or 300 hours of outpatient mental health treatment.
“As a member of the State’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, I have been working hard with colleagues to divert people with mental health issues from the justice system when appropriate,” Pelle said in a statement. “Diverting low level offenders from the criminal justice system into treatment is one step in a continuum of efforts to reduce the impact of mentally ill offenders on our jail and courts, and to achieve better outcomes for the offenders.”
Dougherty said some of the crimes that would qualify include theft, trespassing, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief. Should the program do well, Dougherty said they would even consider expanding it to include some felony drug offenses.
“People that are struggling with mental health issues, they need help and treatment, and jail is not the place for that,” Dougherty said.
Douglas Wilson, who heads the state’s public defender’s office, said this diversion program will help jails and the courts in addition to defendants.
“Having the ability to remove those folks from the criminal justice system and get them to the treatment side not only benefits the client, but benefits society,” Wilson said. “We spend an enormous amount of money dealing with folks committing low-level crimes.”
Wilson also noted that many times, defendants with mental health issues do not do well in jail, and can often pick up new charges for episodes while in custody.
“What happens a lot of the time is a guy gets picked up on a minor, non-assaultive charge like theft,” Wilson said. “He goes to jail and all of a sudden he has a psychotic break and he resists an officer. Now he has a resisting charge. Then maybe he spits on an officer, now he’s looking at second-degree assault.
“Now all of a sudden we are looking at prison time for someone who originally stole a sandwich.”
Wilson hopes that other prosecutors across the state will implement their own programs soon.
“Not everybody has to be incarcerated because they were the stinky guy in the Safeway,” Wilson said.
The task force for the diversion program has already figured out the screening process and is now trying to find mental health treatment programs to participate.
“We need to talk to community providers to see which ones have the resources and expertise to participate in this project,” Dougherty said. “We anticipate and are very confident that mental health providers in Boulder County will want to be a part of this effort.”
Officials are hoping to have the program up and running by the end of the summer.
“I’m pleased to work in a progressive county with our Courts, DA, mental health providers, and public defenders to pilot a program like this,” Pelle said in his statement. “I hope very much for its success.”