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(Photo by Joey Bunch, Colorado Politics)

Gov. Jared Polis told reporters Tuesday that sheriffs will retain the authority to set law-enforcement priorities.

Gov. Jared Polis appears poised to sign into law two bipartisan bills that would overhaul the state’s languishing mental health care system.

The House approved Senate Bill 222 and Senate Bill 223 for the third and final time Tuesday, sending the measures to Polis’ desk. The governor supports the bills, which have yet to be delivered to him, Polis spokeswoman Shelby Weiman said.

In short, the measures aim to ensure that those needing mental health care aren’t left to overburdened jails and forgotten.

The bills are “our babies,” said Alison Butler, director of legal services for Disability Law Colorado, a Denver nonprofit.

Overdue babies at that, she said.

The bills stem from a consent decree in a 2012 lawsuit that the Colorado Department of Human Services agreed to in March, Butler said. The agency agreed to hire more clinicians, tighten treatment deadlines and shift care for many criminal defendants from state hospitals to community programs.

The measures will back that decree with state law, fund the changes and apply them to other organizations and agencies statewide, she said.

“This puts some responsibility on jails to make sure they are providing appropriate mental health services,” Butler said.

“It puts some responsibility on DAs and public defenders; it puts some responsibility on the judiciary and gives them authority to let people out on bond more easily because they’re going to have more information at their fingertips.”

Senate Bill 222 requires access to beds in mental health institutes in Pueblo and Fort Logan to be given based on need rather than the order in which patients arrive.

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It also requires the state Department of Human Services to create and implement a safety net program no later than Jan. 1, 2024, focused on providing services for people with severe behavioral health disorders. Plans to increase treatment programs and make annual reports on the department’s progress are required along the way.

The bill “is about implementing a vision for a system that can serve everyone, so Colorado’s jails don’t have to,” said state Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, who sponsored the bill in the House. “When people with serious behavioral health disorders cannot access the treatment they need, other parts of our system are negatively impacted as we’ve directly seen in Pueblo.”

The House passed the bill unanimously.

Senate Bill 223 overhauls the criminal process for those whose mental competency is in question, and requires the Department of Human Services to track those people.

“It requires interim mental health services while people are in jail so they can get medication and stabilization treatment, which may be all they need in order to be restored to competence,” Butler said.

The measure also creates a triage system to prioritize the needs of those charged, she said.

“Right now we’re on a first-come, first-served basis.”

The House passed the bill on a 59-4 vote.

Both measures make up the second and third portions of work that began last summer, Butler said. The first portion came April 8, when Polis ordered the creation of a behavioral health task force to overhaul the state’s mental health and substance abuse treatment systems.

His announcement came one day after The Gazette published a special report outlining the crisis in Colorado’s mental health system and the hundreds of thousands of Coloradans lacking access to care amid a confusing, expensive and inadequate process.

But the changes have roots that date to 2012, when Disability Law Colorado sued the Department of Human Services after scores of mentally incompetent defendants accused of relatively minor and nonviolent crimes were found suffering for months in county jails while awaiting treatment at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo.

Since the lawsuit was filed, the department and Disability Law Colorado have reached multiple settlements. Each time, state officials failed to live up to the agreements, the nonprofit has said.

Then came the March consent decree, which Butler said should ensure quicker and more enforceable compliance.

Failure to comply with the decree could result in up to $10 million a year in fines for the state.

A Department of Human Services representative could not be reached for comment. Neither could the bills’ sponsors, as legislators continued into the evening.

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