Mental Health Colorado Convenes State and County Partners to Disentangle Mental Health, Criminal Justice

January 25, 2021

Media Contact:
Aubree Hughes, Director of Communications

Mental Health Colorado Convenes State and County Partners to Disentangle Mental Health, Criminal Justice

DENVER— In the absence of adequate access to health services, people with unmanaged mental health needs often intersect with law enforcement and spend time in jails, then cycling in and out of detention, homelessness, and joblessness. Mental Health Colorado, the state’s leading mental health advocacy organization, will host the Colorado Counties Virtual Summit on Mental Health and Criminal Justice on Feb. 4 to identify opportunities for state policy change and to promote changing practices statewide. Attendees will hear from a variety of law enforcement officials, state and national leaders, and mental health advocates. This event is the latest in a series of summits since 2016 which have produced recommendations from and consensus among leaders in the state who are advancing the objective of reducing reliance upon law enforcement, jails, and prisons for meeting the population’s mental health needs.

“Responding to the chronic and acute mental health needs of the population with police, sheriffs, and the criminal justice system is neither appropriate, nor healthy, nor sound fiscal policy, said Mental Health Colorado President & CEO Vincent Atchity. “Police and sheriffs feel stuck in the awkward position of being the only game in town when it comes to mental health crisis response and providing secure transportation and in-patient settings and they are some of our best co-advocates for passing laws and changing practices so that jails and prisons don’t remain the state’s primary mental health facilities.”

The keynote speaker for the virtual summit is Florida Judge Steve Leifman from Miami-Dade County, who helped launch Miami-Dade County’s jail diversion initiative. Like most jails in the U.S., Miami-Dade County had a very high prevalence of inmates with unmet mental health needs. Leifman was frustrated by how many people with mental illnesses kept repeatedly cycling through his court. Under its diversion initiative, Miami-Dade County closed a jail facility—saving taxpayers $12 million per year—and dramatically reduced the number of shootings and injuries of people with mental illnesses.

“We’ve truly seen a cultural shift in how the community addresses mental illness,” Leifman said. “Police injuries have gone down almost 100%, people are getting better access to care, family members of people with a mental illness are no longer afraid to call the police, and everybody is working much more cohesively and collaboratively.”

The United States has only about 5% of the world’s population, yet almost 25% of the world’s incarcerated population—confining more people in jails and prisons per capita than any other country. People with untreated mental health needs are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians stopped by law enforcement. The number of incarcerated people with mental health needs vastly exceeds the number of people receiving treatment in state psychiatric hospitals, making the criminal justice system the de facto mental health system.

The summit will be from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. MST and participants include: Director of the Office of Behavioral Health Dr. Robert Werthwein; Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Jackson; Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle; Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty; Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons; Sheriff Tony Spurlock and Barbara Drake of Douglas County; Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger; Evans Police Chief Rick Brandt; Chris Richardson with Denver’s STAR Program;   Lake County Judge Jonathan Shamis, and many others.

The summit is free and open to the public. Register now here.

About Mental Health Colorado:

Mental Health Colorado is the state’s leading advocate for promoting mental wellness, ending shame and discrimination, and ensuring equitable access to mental health and substance use care. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization and affiliate of Mental Health America.