Thanks to new partnerships with social workers and mental health professionals, a number of Colorado law enforcement agencies have been changing their strategy to focus more on treatment. In some cases, mental health professionals are riding along with officers. In others, case managers stationed in higher crime areas help officers divert low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system and toward recovery.
The Department of Human Services will distribute some $16 million in grants over the next three years in support of efforts to focus on treatment over incarceration. The state is awarding $5.3 million this month. Around a dozen police departments will be participating.
“For Colorado, this is a brand new way of thinking,” says the director of criminal justice services for DHS. The problem these programs address is that a large number of low-level, nonviolent offenders keep circling in and out of the criminal justice system due to mental health and substance abuse. Incarcerating them without giving them the treatment they need doesn’t seem to solve the problem.
Colorado is seeing a growing number of addiction and mental health problems, especially in the criminal justice system. The state’s own studies have shown that up to 40 percent of inmates require mental health treatment and 74 percent suffer from substance use disorders.
In 2013 alone, Colorado spent over $94 million incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders. Despite the legalization of marijuana, other drug offenders remain subject to incarceration.
The Boulder County Attorney’s Office backs the initiative. For one thing, sending mental health professionals along with police can deescalate an otherwise threatening situation. For another, their presence may help defend against accusations of excessive force.
There are good reasons for the new strategies. Incarceration often means the loss of a job and possibly housing, severely disrupting the inmate’s ability to reenter society. It also tears families apart, taking away one of the main reasons to remain clean and off the streets. These factors can lead to a cycle of incarceration that benefits no one.
In 2017, mental health workers assisted Denver police with almost 1,000 contacts. Only 2.4 percent of those contacts resulted in an arrest. 334 people were connected with mental health treatment, while over 200 were either hospitalized or put on mental health hold and another 49 were taken to crisis centers. 68 were referred to adult or child protective services and 33 were taken to detox facilities.
“These clinicians are worth their weight in gold,” said one Denver police lieutenant.
During the last legislative session, both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly approved the funding DHS is distributing for these programs.