Community Health|April 21, 2011 3:00 PM

Mental Health Court changes lives of chronic criminals

Taxpayers could save millions of dollars over time

Barbara, left, a defendant in the Arapahoe County Mental Health court in Centennial, consults with Magistrate Laura Findorff, right, and Gina Shimeall, court coordinator. An 11-time convicted felon who suffers from mental illness and drug addiction, Barbara has made significant progress in dealing with her addiction and criminal behavior, due mostly to the counseling, therapy and structure she receives from the problem-solving court.

Barbara is a 50-year old woman who has struggled all her life just to maintain, sometimes just to survive. It hasn’t gone well.

She inherited severe mental illness and suffers from severe depression with psychotic episodes. She also suffers from severe diabetes, severe arthritis, a bad heart, high blood pressure and pancreatitis.

Barbara began making poor choices early on. She married a vicious man who has terrorized her with beatings. And she’s passed her problems on to the next generation. She gave birth to 10 children. Two sons were murdered inside her house by a rival gang. Two sons are in prison. One grandchild was murdered, another died of medical problems.

Unable to hold down jobs, she turned to non-violent crime to support her family, including theft, writing bad checks, forgery and dealing drugs. She’s lousy at being a criminal. She has 11 felony convictions. She’s spent 25 years—half her life—in the court system, 16 of them behind bars. She asked that her last name not be used to protect her medical privacy.

Colorado taxpayers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep Barbara locked up in prison. Like most mentally ill defendants, Barbara has found herself in a revolving door of serving time in prison, getting out, committing more crimes, being convicted again, and ending up back behind bars.

But now, Barbara is changing her life, thanks to a mental health court in Arapahoe County that is ensuring she gets treatment. Taxpayers could save hundreds of thousands of dollars if she keeps succeeding and never returns to prison.

Colorado ranks 49th in funding for the treatment of the mentally ill. With little care in the community, many poor mentally ill in this state end up like Barbara, violating the law to survive and serving year after year behind bars.

Now, 25 percent of Colorado’s prison population is mentally ill.

“Our prisons and jails are the new asylums. They’ve become the largest facilities in the state for housing the mentally ill,” said Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers.

But the state’s crowded prisons can’t provide the therapy they need. And the inmates leave with the same problems and commit the same crimes.

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