2016-2017 was an important legislative year for the state of Colorado. Experts and leaders in behavioral health and criminal justice from all over the state—urban, rural, and frontier–were decisive, clear, and direct. With unique cross-sector consensus, experts and leaders declared the state’s urgent need for an alternative to incarceration and criminal justice system involvement for people living with mental illness and/or those who may be experiencing a behavioral health crisis, and provided urgent recommendations for overcoming barriers to reducing incarceration, improving behavioral health outcomes, and maintaining public safety.
The legislature listened to the voices of experts and leaders united for sensible community health measures over the course of a session which might prove to be one of the most efficient and harmonious in recent history. Overall, 69% of bills introduced were passed,* and included 11 bills specifically targeting behavioral health and criminal justice reforms that will improve outcomes and reduce long-term costs to the community.
One of the most newsworthy wins is Senate Bill 207: Strengthen Colorado Behavioral Health Crisis System. The legislature approved the appropriation of nearly $7.1 million for 2017/2018 with an increase to $7,365,871 for 2018/2019 to fund statewide training for first-responders, 24-hour crisis service connections and infrastructure, dedicated rural crisis response capacity enhancements, law enforcement-clinician partnerships, technical assistance, transportation pilot programs, and the staffing and assessments needed to implement the legislation. Read more about the legislation on our website.
In addition to and in support of this important intervention, the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health will receive $2.5 million in the state budget to implement Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) pilot programs. Programs like these have a proven track record for cost avoidance and improved outcomes for law enforcement engagement with individuals experiencing mental health crises. One successful example based in Boulder, Colorado, the SAMHSA-funded EDGE program has helped the city realize savings of over $1 million per year after full implementation was achieved. Adoption of these programs in other parts of Colorado is expected to help these localities realize long-term savings as well.
For ill individuals who become incarcerated in the state’s jails and prisons, groundbreaking legislation in the form of Senate Bill 019 was also passed. The law, developed by the Task Force Concerning the Treatment of Mentally Ill Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, in coordination with the Colorado Department of Human Services, will dramatically increase the likelihood that patients stay on the same medications whether they are treated in a health center, detained in a local jail or prison, or are otherwise involved in state and local systems. The relevance of this proposal was outlined in a presentation at Equitas’ Course Corrections: Mid-Atlantic Summit, given by the Department of Human Services’ Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Patrick Fox.
Though these laws will help address the earliest points of contact between first responders and community members with mental illnesses, long-term solutions to prevent justice-involvement, or break cycles of jail stays for the mentally ill are still necessary. Toward these ends, the 2017/2018 state budget (long bill) was amended to include $15.3 million in Marijuana Tax Cash Funds for housing construction grants given through the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), targeting assistance toward groups with historic barriers to housing, including those with histories of justice-involvement and persons with behavioral health issues.
Another cash fund supported by marijuana tax funding was created by the enactment of Senate Bill 021, to provide assistance to mentally ill individuals exiting the criminal justice system. The bill language notes that Colorado currently spends $2,083 per year, per prisoner for mental health services–money that is improperly directed to correctional instead of therapeutic and preventative settings. This new law will provide funds for housing vouchers and other supportive services upon release, to some individuals exiting adult and youth department of corrections institutions, or county jails. Other supportive housing models in place across the country have consistently demonstrated reductions in returns to jail for populations with the highest needs, resulting in long-term cost savings for local governments, and the recovery of human potential from the cycle of entrapment in corrections systems. This bill indicates an important course correction, but we have a ways yet to go before affordability of housing ceases to be closely linked to poor health outcomes and justice-involvement.
Tremendous additional support has been approved to specifically address substance use disorders, in recognition that substance use is a critical health issue. More on those bills, including HB 1351, SB 074, SB 193, and the $12 million state budget appropriation for substance use intervention service expansion can be found on the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council’s website.
Colorado must be proud of all of these successes and of the growing understanding that, working together with clear purpose, we can achieve greater health, justice, and prosperity for all.