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Colorado Will Pay $3M To Refurbish Housing For Defendants Awaiting Mental Health Help

Inside Denver's downtown detention center. Oct. 11, 2018.
Inside Denver's downtown detention center. Oct. 11, 2018.

State officials will pay homeless advocates $3.4 million to refurbish 28 studio apartments so mentally ill people stuck in the criminal justice system awaiting restoration to competency before they stand trial won’t sit in jail.

The 28 units will be specifically designed for mentally ill homeless people caught in limbo within the criminal justice system. These are people who have usually been charged with very low-level crimes — trespassing or public urination or drinking, for example — but have been deemed mentally incompetent to face the criminal charges filed by prosecutors. 

Right now, more than 150 of these people are sitting in jail, awaiting a pricey hospital bed for these services, called “competency restoration.” 

The state has been sued multiple times in the last 10 years for the wait times faced by these defendants, none of whom have been found guilty of a crime.

Those lawsuits led to this unique agreement — reached by state officials at the Colorado Department of Human Services and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless — to get these people out of incarcerated settings. 

It’s the first partnership of its kind in the country, officials said.

“There are enough people on the competency docket that have housing concerns, or are homeless, that a barrier for a judge to place this person on bond is that they don’t have a place to live,” said Robert Werthwein, head of the state’s Office of Behavioral Health. “We’re hoping this mitigates that. I can’t say this will change the sentencing decisions but we’re hoping this is an investment worth promoting.”

The units will be studio apartments and will have “wrap around” services that will both train people charged with low-level crimes about the criminal court, as well as offer other support like addiction classes. 

The defendants won’t stay in the studios forever but can get treatment for up to a year.

“We serve people who are homeless, or who are mentally ill or who have other disabilities who are often caught in the cycle of the criminal justice system,” said John Parvensky, CEO of the Colorado Coalition of the Homeless. “Housing enhances compliance with treatment services.”

The apartments will be housed at an old Quality Inn near Stapleton. 

It’s part of a larger project by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to convert 140 former hotel rooms to dwellings for people to transition from homelessness.

The partnership came out of multiple years of mentally ill advocates and state officials fighting in federal court

Colorado’s jails were brimming with people awaiting competency restoration before they face criminal charges. People waited so long for the services — months and months — that advocates sued the state for not moving them out of jail settings more quickly. 

In March, a federal judge ruled a special master would be in charge of the implementation of an agreement to get the state back into compliance from an earlier settlement. For every person still sitting in jail, the state had to pay.

Officials said this week they expect to pay $10 million in penalties the first year — the maximum they have to pay. 

As of October, roughly 150 people have been sitting in jail beyond 30 days awaiting competency restoration, officials said. Some of those people face serious criminal charges, but public defenders tallied it up and found most of them were facing charges for low-level, non-violent offenses.

Parvensky, at the Coalition, said the housing units should be ready by the end of 2019.

Copyright 2019 CPR News

Allison Sherry