An Interview with Catherine Strode
It is estimated that the incidence of mental illness among prison inmates is three times more prevalent than in the general population. Nationally, more than a third of inmates are reported to suffer from some form of mental illness. Colorado statistics reflect nearly 40 per cent of the state’s inmates are in need of mental health intervention. A package of bills is being introduced this Session to address the issue of competency for individuals with mental illness in the criminal justice system.
Senator Pete Lee, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been one of the architects of the bills. He says the goal is to establish a protocol where individuals in need of mental health care are identified and expediently moved out of the criminal justice system into community treatment care programs.
What is your role in bringing the competency bills?
I have been on the Judiciary Committee in the House for eight years and am now Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I’m at the intersection of a lot of what goes on within the criminal justice system. We hear over and over in testimony the increased number of people going into jail who have: mental health issues, developmental disabilities, and drug and alcohol problems. The criminal justice system was not designed to deal with people with mental health, or substance abuse, or intellectual or developmental disabilities. We have far too many people in the system who are incompetent to proceed. They need to have either restoration services (so they can be restored to competency), be institutionalized, or put into some sort of treatment program. We hear about the amount of time they’re spending in jail and not getting treatment. I have been working with people from Mental Health Colorado, the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, and the Public Defender’s Office. I’m a conduit to carry the proposals and recommendations they have made into the legislative process. These bills this Session are an attempt to integrate, coordinate, and bring the system together with better resources between various departments. This is the epicenter of a huge problem that affects every jurisdiction around the state.
What bills are being introduced to address the issue?
I refer to them as Competency Bill Number Two and Competency Bill Number Three. Number Two is the ‘Safety Net’ Bill. It is to set up a system to keep people from entering the criminal justice system who have mental illness. This will necessarily mean conducting mental health assessments. Assessments will be conducted early on. If individuals are then soon determined incompetent to proceed, they will be referred for jail based treatment (if that’s a possibility) or to community resources for restoration services. That’s in the second bill. We want to get the local community behavioral health providers to be part of a safety net. There are 15 or 20 of those around the state. This is so people can get treatment rather than go to jail. It’s a way to try and stitch them all together in a comprehensive network to provide services.
What is in Competency Bill Number Three?
Bill Number Three is to prioritize community treatment for people with serious mental illness or intellectual or developmental disabilities. It is to get people determined incompetent to proceed into programs for restoration of competency. Restoration is a legal term dealing with being able to understand how the legal system works. It isn’t restoration to full robust mental health. It’s not that because some of those people aren’t going to get to that point. It is designed to get them to the point where they understand what’s going on in the legal system. They commit some minor offense. They are doing things which may be quote, “criminal,” but which are fairly benign: peeing in the park, minor destruction of property, cursing and interfering with law enforcement. They’re not restorable in a foreseeable period of time. How long are you going to keep them in jail? Right now in Colorado you can’t keep them in jail longer than what their sentence would be if found guilty. But that’s way too long. Those people don’t belong in jail. They need community mental health resources.
Do you think judges will be amenable to letting people out of jail to receive restoration in the community?
I think they will. I think the key is for judges to feel comfortable that the people they are releasing are not a danger to the community. That will be predicated on having appropriate risk assessments. What will enhance the judges’ comfort level is to have a professional evaluator sit down and talk to them about what conditions might be appropriate to release them under.
What systemic changes do you think will result from these bills?
Hopefully, overall they will reduce the number of people languishing in county jails. To me, that’s a huge systemic change. We want to put money into evaluation, restoration, and treatment. That’s what we are going to do. We need to help people who are struggling with these kinds of conditions.
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.