Treatment vs Incarceration

Nov 19, 2013

Pitkin County Courthouse
Credit Ninth Judicial District - Colorado

  Earlier this year, an Aspen man was arrested after leading Sheriff’s deputies on a chase up Castle Creek Road.  He is accused of threatening to harm the deputies and himself.  At his first court appearance the defendant cursed the court and law enforcement officers yelling they should have killed him.  As Aspen Public Radio's Roger Adams reports, thanks to a new sentencing alternative he might be able to avoid incarceration. 

“At the time of his arrest, I went to the court and said I don’t think this person should be comingling with our small society.   I argued to keep the bond high.”

Pitkin County Sheriff, Joe DiSalvo, told the court how during the incident the Aspen Schools were briefly locked down and that the defendant should stay in jail. He remains at the Pitkin County Jail where staff, at first, considered him disruptive and potentially violent. 

Now this inmate is the first person to be considered for alternative sentencing under care of Pitkin County’s new Wellness Program.  In other words he is being recommended for treatment instead of incarceration. 

Despite the earlier interaction Sheriff DiSalvo supports keeping him out of jail.

"Now that the man has had a chance to detox, if that's part of his problem, a different person starts to manifest"

“Now that the man has had a chance to detox, if that’s part of his problem, a different person starts to manifest.  And, you see the real person, not the person who was under the influence or was having a mental health episode.  I think now he’s seeing things through a different set of glasses and may be able to benefit from the mental health help that we can give him.”

The mental health support will come from what some are calling mental health court.  Under the program, a defendant can plead to a crime and instead of going to jail or prison receive a supervised regimen of treatment including substance abuse counseling, therapy and medication. 

Pitkin County Court Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely says treatment is more effective for these offenders than jail.

“Its better justice because it restores the community as well as the offender and the victim.  We’ve discovered that jail can be counterproductive and creates more recidivism.”

Reducing recidivism, where a person gets out of jail only re-offend, is a key goal of the Wellness Program.  Judge Fernandez-Ely, who was instrumental in creating the mental health court, says it is patterned after what have come to be known as Problem Solving Courts. 

Across much of the nation, there are now Drug Courts, DUI Courts, Domestic Violence Courts and recently Veteran's Trauma Courts. 

The operating theory is that many crimes are committed because of an offender’s mental health problem; that if the offender is treated he or she will become productive citizens. 

Ten years ago, a state task force studied the problem and found widespread need.  

“Seventeen percent of inmates at the Department of Corrections have a serious mental illness," says Fernandez-Ely,  "24 percent of juveniles in the system have a serious mental illness and it cannot be treated in a jail setting making it difficult for anybody to get out of that cycle.”

There are a number of people in Pitkin County who are in a cycle of criminality; jail-time, release and re-arrest.  Law enforcement and the courts know them.  Mental health court promises to break this rhythm of re-offending.

“Its helping the system in that we’re not just incarcerating these people just to see them back again," says Andrea Bryan who has prosecuted some defendants multiple times.  She is a Deputy District Attorney in Pitkin County.

“It does take a load off of the jails, off of the Department of Corrections.  Now we’re getting resources not only to keep them pout of jail but to prevent them from coming back and get them the real help that they need.”

The process begins with a screening team that evaluates defendants and chooses offenders likely to benefit.  The team includes the Judge, District Attorneys, the Public Defender, Law Enforcement, Probation officers and mental health professionals from Mind Springs Health; any of these entities can recommend an offender.  The program is voluntary and their own attorney can also nominate defendants. 

Once accepted, a supervised program begins.  Dr. Andrea Pazdera is with Mind Springs Health.

“This program begins with daily contact with others and we know that isolation is one of the largest contributors to depression, emotional struggle and eventually mental health degradation.”

Mind Springs’ therapists will provide counseling and if necessary ensure the defendants take medications.  The program will consider defendants with access-one diagnoses; these include severe depression, schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder and bipolar disorder.  All are treatable disorders

If participants skip sessions or fail to meet specified treatment goals the probation officer will step in to enforce the terms of the sentencing.  On an irregular basis they will appear before Judges like Erin Fernandez-Ely.

“To motivate people.  A lot of it is motivational as opposed to punishment.  Punishment doesn’t really seem to change behavior.”

The Wellness Program team will meet every two weeks to review applicants for alternative sentencing.  Judge Fernandez-Ely doesn’t know how many defendants might eventually be part of the mental health court process.  Colorado’s two other mental health courts are in Centennial and Durango.  Combined they are currently treating about fifty offenders.