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Colorado agency blasted for failing to live up to mental health competency agreement

June 13, 2018 Updated: June 13, 2018 at 9:09 pm
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A Denver nonprofit reignited a years-long fight over the Colorado Department of Human Services' habit of holding thousands of severely mentally ill people in county jails for months without court-ordered evaluations or treatment.

Disability Law Colorado demanded a federal District Court judge force the agency to comply with a settlement the two sides reached several years ago, rather than continue practices that are "unconstitutional, unconscionable, and unacceptable," according to a motion filed by the nonprofit Wednesday.

"This is not just a human crisis, which is really what it is," said Iris Eytan, an attorney for the nonprofit. "It's more than that. It's a financial crisis.

"People will be restored a lot quicker if they're not having to sit in a jail cell for five months."

She said at least 2,000 people were affected by the agency's actions over the last year, including "a fair amount" of people in El Paso County.

In a statement, the Colorado Department of Human Services said the nonprofit's move ignored the agency's work to address its backlog, which it called the result of "extraordinary demand" for those evaluations. It also lamented the failure earlier this year of legislation that could have addressed the issue.

"The Department of Human Services is disappointed that Disability Law Colorado chose litigation at this juncture, an approach the department regards as ineffective and costly to taxpayers," the agency's statement said.

The dispute dates to 2011, when Disability Law Colorado sued the state agency over concerns that scores of criminal defendants were held for up to six months in county jails before receiving court-ordered mental competency evaluations or treatment.

Judges use the evaluations in ruling whether defendants are mentally fit to stand trial. If found mentally incompetent, the inmates must be treated by state psychologists until their mental fitness is restored. Inmates' treatment can't extend beyond the maximum sentence they face.

The two sides have reached multiple settlements over the last seven years. And each time, state officials failed to live up to the agreements, the nonprofit said.

Under the current deal, the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo's leaders agreed to admit defendants for inpatient evaluations or treatment within 28 days of their being ready for admission. In addition, the average monthly wait time was not to exceed 24 days.

But some people have waited in jail for more than 100 days, the nonprofit said. Many were held longer than if they had pleaded guilty.

The nonprofit's attorneys estimate that at least a quarter of the detainees awaiting trial faced petty, misdemeanor, non-violent or drug charges.

On Wednesday, the nonprofit took aim at state officials' excuses for those wait times.

The state agency twice invoked a special clause in the settlement, which exempt it from those requirements due to unforeseen circustances. Each time, the state agency cited "an unanticipated spike in court-ordered referrals."

But the nonprofit's lawyers said state officials could have avoided those lengthy delays.

They cited state officials' "ineptitude, lack of vision, and continuous and willful disregard for the health and well-being of the very people they are statutorily tasked with helping: the mentally ill," according to the motion.

The nonprofit demanded the agency eliminate its waiting lists by Aug. 1, or face fines or penalties or being held in contempt.

"These individuals have the right to be treated with dignity and respect," the motion said."

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