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Further coverage from Colorado Public News. CPN focuses on uncovering significant information not being reported by anyone else in Colorado.

Mental Health Court Turns Around Lives of Chronic Criminals

Photo by Mike McPhee, Colorado Public News
Barbara, left, a defendant in the Arapahoe County Mental Health court in Centennial, consults with Magistrate Laura Findorff, right, and Gina Shimeall, court coordinator.

An estimated 25% of Colorado's prison population is mentally ill, and nearly all suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction. Once they are in the system, most find themselves in a revolving door of crime, conviction and prison. But in 17 months of existence, nonviolent felons in the Arapahoe County Mental Health Court have a zero percent recidivism rate.

Barbara is a 50-year old woman who has struggled all her life just to maintain, sometimes just to survive. It hasn’t gone well.

She inherited severe mental illness and suffers from severe depression with psychotic episodes. She also suffers from severe diabetes, severe arthritis, a bad heart, high blood pressure and pancreatitis.

Barbara began making poor choices early on. She married a vicious man who has terrorized her with beatings. And she’s passed her problems on to the next generation. She gave birth to 10 children. Two sons were murdered inside her house by a rival gang. Two sons are in prison. One grandchild was murdered, another died of medical problems.

Unable to hold down jobs, she turned to non-violent crime to support her family, including theft, writing bad checks, forgery and dealing drugs. She’s lousy at being a criminal. She has 11 felony convictions. She’s spent 25 years—half her life—in the court system, 16 of them behind bars. She asked that her last name not be used to protect her medical privacy.

Colorado taxpayers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep Barbara locked up in prison. Like most mentally ill defendants, Barbara has found herself in a revolving door of serving time in prison, getting out, committing more crimes, being convicted again, and ending up back behind bars.

But now, Barbara is changing her life, thanks to a mental health court in Arapahoe County that is ensuring she gets treatment. Taxpayers could save hundreds of thousands of dollars if she keeps succeeding and never returns to prison.

Colorado ranks 49th in funding for the treatment of the mentally ill. With little care in the community, many poor mentally ill in this state end up like Barbara, violating the law to survive and serving year after year behind bars.

Now, 25 percent of Colorado’s prison population is mentally ill.

“Our prisons and jails are the new asylums. They’ve become the largest facilities in the state for housing the mentally ill,” said Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers.

But the state’s crowded prisons can’t provide the therapy they need. And the inmates leave with the same problems and commit the same crimes.

In January, 2010, three women created the Arapahoe County Mental Health Court, to deal with the revolving door that mentally ill defendants have been unable to exit. They are having surprising results. Convicted felons with mental illness, like Barbara, are placed into an intensely supervised, highly structured environment with lots of counseling.

Group therapy sessions include heavy doses of peer pressure, open displays of encouragement, and congratulations for meeting goals.

But despite the success of Arapahoe County, the rest of the state is not following. It’s difficult to create a separate mental health court because the state is short of funds and the courts are swamped with work.

“It’s a matter of resources and manpower,” says Shane Bahr of the Colorado Judicial Department. “It also takes a champion, like Gina Shimeall. And in that sense Arapahoe is unique.”

Not one of the Arapahoe County Mental Health Court’s 40 habitual, mentally ill felons like Barbara has committed a new crime in 17 months of existence. That’s compared to a previous repeat crime rate of nearly 100 percent for the program’s participants. The Colorado Department of Corrections says that overall, 50 percent of its prisoners are back within five years.

“Once they’ve served their time in prison, these people have no support system when they’re released,” said Barbara Becker, a counselor for the nonprofit Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network, a private agency that works with the mentally ill. “They lose their meds, they return to alcohol and drugs and re-engage in criminal behavior. It’s a revolving door.”

Gina Shimeall, a public defender for 19 years in Arapahoe County, said the existing court system “tends to be too adversarial, mostly concerned with punishment and public safety.”

“We needed to be more problem-solving, where we could treat the underlying problems of these defendants,” Shimeall said.

The public defender and the counselor teamed up a little over a year ago to launch the experimental court. Chief Judge William Sylvester appointed Magistrate Laura Findorff to preside.

The $500,000 cost has been paid with grants and donations, and includes housing and transportation for participants.

In just its first year, the court has saved taxpayers $600,000, based on the average cost of $125 per day to house a mentally ill person in a state prison and $83 per day in the county jail. If the court continues to keep its 40 chronic criminals out of prison, it has the potential to save taxpayers millions over time.

According to Capt. Attila Denes of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, these figures are hitting home. “Law enforcement is getting it now, that there have to be alternatives to jail for the mentally ill," he said.

A recent study by the Metro Area County Commissioners determined that caring for mentally ill prisoners costs the seven Denver metro-area county jails an estimated $44 million each year.

Rick Doucet, a mental health counselor who runs a nonprofit program in Adams County similar to Becker’s Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network, said his diversion program has had the same zero-recidivism rate for roughly 30 defendants they have treated over the past 3.5 years.

“Without treatment, mentally ill criminals fall into a legal system they can’t get out of,” Doucet said. “These courts and diversion programs are designed to break that cycle and they’re having tremendous success at that.”

But the treatments are intensive. “Many defendants have relapses with drugs or alcohol,” said Becker. “We’ve found that we need to treat the whole person. We need to treat their physical problems, then their addictions, then we need to develop a support system for them. We work with their families, who are critical. We help them find a job, and housing. We’re with them every step of the way, sometimes 24/7.”

Each Friday morning at the Arapahoe County Mental Health Court, up to 40 defendants appear before Magistrate Findorff. Individually, they approach the podium to listen as she reads their weekly sobriety report. She reviews any behavioral issues, and issues judgments on their requests to leave their halfway houses or transitional housing on passes to go shopping or visit with family and friends. Findorff can be very accommodating, and is quick to congratulate successful defendants.

“Our goal here is to get these people to a point where they can function in society,” she said. “The biggest difference in this court is that they can fail – such as a hot urinalysis – and not be rejected.

“But this is a very intrusive court. We tell them who they can see during the week, who they can’t see, where they can go and for how long and what they must do for finding work. We give them homework-writing assignments on a wide variety of subjects to help them deal with their issues.

“Everyone agrees with us initially, but we’ve had some rebel,” Findorff continued. “Ultimately, I’m wearing the black robes of the court and if I have to send them back to jail or prison, I will.”

After a year in the program, Barbara has found a sense of purpose for her life, she says. “I’d like to be a peer mentor,” she said. “I’ve learned what triggers my anger. I’ve learned to stop, to breathe then focus on the solution.”

She’s found her beautiful singing voice she nurtured as a child, then lost. She wrote a song about the mental health court, and recently sang it in court, in a lovely, endearing voice. She’s even been making an attempt at play the flute, a very difficult change for a convicted felon with a nasty temper.

“This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said.