Colorado Takes a Meaningful Step Toward Health Care, Not Jail, for People in Crisis

We may be in the second decade of the 21st century here in the Land of the Free, but all over the country our wealth of community resources somehow leads to handcuffs, an overencumbered justice system, and crowded jails and prisons. Police, sheriffs, district attorneys, public defenders, and judges increasingly acknowledge that the justice system serves as the default mental and behavioral health system for people who, with systematic support and guidance, could be living in their communities.

In Colorado up until last week, a section in the Colorado Revised Statutes (CRS) nominally sanctioned locking a person in crisis in a jail cell –without charging them with a crime, involving an attorney, or providing professional health care. If, to the first responder, your behavior or words made you seem “gravely disabled” or an “imminent threat to self or others” because of a crisis or breakdown, jail could be your next stop.



In a recent push to establish consensus among community leaders and develop solutions, Governor Hickenlooper formed a Mental Health Holds Task Force in late 2016 to create recommendations on how to better respond to behavioral health crises. The Governor’s Task Force converged with two other major policy groups–Equitas’s Colorado Course Corrections Summit and the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice—in agreeing that the number one priority for statewide reform was to immediately end the use of jails for mental health holds. This recommendation was supported by the County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, and other key stakeholders across Colorado. The efforts of these groups bore fruit this year in the form of Senate Bill 17-207.


SB17-207 Bill Signing

Photo Credit: Emily Haller, Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council Left to right: Rick Raemisch (Colorado Department of Corrections), Moses Gur (Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council), Nancy Vandemark (Colorado Department of Human Services), Chrissie Hodges (Peer Support), Colorado State Representative Joseph Salazar, Abigail Tucker (Community Reach Center), Doug Wilson (Colorado State Public Defender), Colorado State Senator John Cooke, Dr. Patrick Fox (Colorado Department of Human Services), Stan Hilkey (Colorado Department of Public Safety), Frank Cornelia (Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council), Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper [Seated]

The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senators Cooke and Kagan, and Representatives Sias and Salazar, was signed into law last week, on Thursday, May 18. Governor Hickenlooper’s signing of the bill represents the state’s firm commitment to end of the use of jails for these detentions, called “M1 holds,” and will bring the practice to an end by May 1, 2018.

$7.1 million has been allocated to increase crisis response capacity statewide, including all rural and urban regions of Colorado. Communities across the state are eager to build and expand alternatives to jails for people in crisis with these funds, while making continued progress toward preventive interventions that reduce the volume of need for costly crisis response.

This new law has widespread legislative, regulatory, and operational support, as communities across Colorado have joined the Colorado Crisis Services system contractors in demonstrating shared commitment to implementing this change in practice. Colorado is known for a bold and pioneering spirit, and for its aspiration to be the nation’s healthiest state. On behalf of Colorado’s tireless behavioral health advocates, we are proud to note May 2017 as, fittingly, a momentous turn away from the discriminatory criminalization of people whose mental and behavioral health has been poorly supported by our communities and systems, and a significant stride forward along our path toward health, justice and prosperity for the state of Colorado.

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