An Interview with Catherine Strode
For the past 12 years, Alison Butler has been advocating for the rights of people with disabilities in her role as the Director of Legal Services for Disability Law Colorado. She has investigated reports of institutional abuse, housing and workplace discrimination, and inequities in education. However, the 2019 Legislative Session may be presenting her with one of her most challenging advocacy issues as she leads a campaign to reform the state’s handling of people with disabilities in the criminal justice system.
Currently, the average jail wait time for a person judged to be incompetent to proceed in Colorado’s criminal justice process is 79 days. Allison is leading an educational and legislative campaign to reduce that wait period down to no more than 14 days. In addition, she aspires to change the way people with disabilities who have committed low level crimes are routed through the criminal justice system. She says this issue in Colorado has reached a point of crisis.
Why has Disability Law Colorado made competency one of its most important issues of the 2019 Session?
We are reaching a crisis point in how long people are waiting to be restored through education and treatment and are languishing in jails. Timely and appropriate competency evaluations, and restoration, has been a major issue for Disability Law Colorado since 2011 when we first filed a lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Human Services and its Executive Director. The reason it is coming to a head this year is because we are now on our third round of reopening that lawsuit. The basis for the lawsuit was, and is, current practices violate the rights of people who have mental illness. It is an attorney’s obligation when they are representing somebody charged with a crime to evaluate whether or not they believe that person has the competency to understand the judicial system in order to assist in their defense and move forward in the case.
What impact does this issue have on the population of individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities?
It is about mental competency but it does include people who have developmental disabilities as well as people who may have traumatic brain injuries (TBI) who have difficulty understanding the judicial system. There is a large group of people with developmental disabilities who have been found incompetent and have been ordered into restoration. However, they are never going to be restored because their competency isn’t based on a mental illness but is based on their developmental disability. We are trying to make sure that when the criminal judicial system has appropriately recognized that a person with a developmental disability is incompetent, that they are not languishing in jail. We want to make sure they are being treated appropriately based on their particular disability.
What is the Competency Restoration Bill Package backed by Disability Law Colorado?
This Session we have been working with stakeholders to figure out legislative fixes to the problems that can’t be cured by the lawsuit. The bill package includes three different ideas that all work together. The first, is the strategic plan. That is setting up a system so all the stakeholders get together on one task force. The players at the table would include: Colorado Department of Human Services, district attorneys, public defenders, criminal defense attorneys, representatives from the judicial system, community behavioral centers, and people who work with individuals with disabilities. It is making sure everyone understands what systems are available and accordingly make recommendations on what needs to be done. The second, is to look at prevention and potential diversion. Instead of going through this competency process, people identified as having an intellectual or developmental disability can be routed down a different path, rather than going through the criminal justice system. Number three, we’re looking at how to reform the system. How many days does a person wait in jail before they are evaluated? Where does the evaluation take place? Does a judge understand what community resources are available for people who have been arrested and that they don’t have to go to jail to get those resources?
What does Disability Law Colorado hope to accomplish with passage of these bills?
The hope is we will have fewer people in jail inappropriately. Right now, there are people in jail who have intellectual or developmental disabilities going through the competency system. We don’t think that’s appropriate. There are people in jail who have serious mental health issues but could be treated in the community rather than being institutionalized. We don’t think that’s appropriate. There are people who are being underserved because our jails and our state mental institutions don’t have the resources (beds, staff, therapy providers, services) that this population needs. We think they can and should be treated in the community. Our hope with these bills is that we will build up and get much needed funding for community resources. Also, we hope to educate folks why people can receive treatment in the community and ensure they are not languishing in jails.
Do you hold this to be a human rights issue?
Absolutely. The way we treat people with disabilities who are caught up in the criminal justice system is inhumane. Having someone wait 79 days in jail when either they have a developmental disability that will never be restored, or a mental health disability that continues to get worse because our jails don’t have the resources to treat them, that’s inhumane. It’s a human rights issue. This is a very underserved segment of the population. When we talk about people who are in the criminal justice system, and then intersecting that with people who have significant disabilities (mental health or TBI), it’s a population that hasn’t been served and isn’t popular to serve. That’s why we exist, to make sure people who don’t have a strong voice for themselves are being spoken for and their rights are being protected.
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.