Colorado could be facing millions of dollars in fines for people charged with a crime who are stuck in jail while waiting for mental health services. The state is likely to hit the $10 million maximum set by a federally enforced civil agreement.
The ongoing pandemic is partly to blame, as the wait list for mental competency evaluations doubled in mid-April. However, Colorado’s struggles with addressing mental health issues in the criminal justice system go back much further.
A troubled history when providing mental health services
In 2011, the Center for Legal Advocacy, now called Disability Law Colorado, sued the state over timely competency evaluations and the treatment of mentally ill detainees. In 2012, a federal court sided with the watchdog group. However, with few mechanisms for enforcement, the state largely failed to comply with the court order.
In 2019, after ongoing legal battles, a federal court entered a consent decree ordering the state to follow strict timetables for performing competency evaluations. Failure to comply results in fines of up to $1.3 million per month with a maximum yearly fine of $10 million.
The importance of determining competency
It’s a violation of due process to convict a person who can’t understand court proceedings or who can’t assist in their own defense. In theory, this should protect individuals who are suffering from severe mental health issues. The reality is the criminal justice system has become a place to put the mentally ill at a time when resources are extremely limited.
A person may languish in jail or a state hospital for months before a competency determination is ever made. The system is not working as it should when a crime which carries a sentence of up to 180 days results in a person being detained for much longer before ever having their case heard.
Everyone has the right to a speedy trial. While mental health challenges can present significant hurdles, these problems aren’t insurmountable. Family members need to advocate for their loved ones. A skilled legal professional can help you determine your options.