By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Following the aftermath of the third media worthy shooting in Colorado, the time has arrived for shedding light onto positive news in Colorado.

Image courtesy bibliodyssey.blogspot.com

According to the news media, the federal government is taking a more serious look at how mental illness is connected to violent crimes. Gun control news has accelerated. However, it is evident that stricter gun control laws are not the only answer to this festering problem.  

Colorado recently added their eighth mental illness pilot project to their judicial system. Currently, there are approximately 300 similar projects across the nation.

Leave it to Aspen, Colorado, the innovative ski resort town burrowed in the Rocky Mountains to launch a program designed for mentally ill offenders.

It is no surprise the glitzy town of Aspen would offer such a lavish solution to a problem narrowly addressed within the criminal justice system. Aspen locals have historically nick named the Aspen jail the “Club Med” of the correctional system.

The Wellness Program, generated earlier this year has evolved over the past several months.

The motive of the program is to provide appropriate sentencing alternatives for mentally ill offenders, sentencing alternatives which reduce recidivism rates.  

For people with mental illness, jail rarely is the proper place to get needed treatment, but that is often exactly the place where they repeatedly end up.

The project is based on a unique court model. Pitkin County 9th Judicial District Judge, Fernandez-Ely envisions the atmosphere of the wellness court to be motivational rather than adversarial. Mentally ill offenders will not be scrutinized by a judge, jury or prosecutor, and defended by a lawyer; in fact the courtroom is empty aside from the defendant and the judge.

Last month, the first participant of The Wellness Program engaged in a congenial conversation with the judge about the offender’s life, family, and interests. The judge asked the defendant questions that would traditionally be directed at jury candidates.

The main objective of the dialog between the judge and male offender was an initial interview aimed at leading the way for future mentally ill offenders into The Wellness Program. This was the first step towards creating a new life for the individual and his predecessors, which does not include time behind bars.   

The Wellness Program was a team effort, spearheaded by Judge Fernandez-Ely, a group of mental health experts, law enforcement representatives, and probation officers. Judge Fernandez-Ely acknowledged that with the court being in its initial stages, the number of people who will participate is difficult to foresee.

Judge Fernandez-Ely claims there are people on her court docket who are appropriate applicants for the project, but admits the reason new participants are tough to predict is they need to be willing to comply with the program requirements. Treatment for clients that are not inspired to change is not effective.

The Wellness Program collaborative team assesses the prospective participant’s eligibility for the program. Members of the team consist of an elite group of professionals, which include clinician Kate Cardamone of Mind Springs Health, an Aspen counseling center that has a contract with the 9th Judicial District’s probation department for the new court, as well as Fernandez-Ely; probation officer Shawn Brown; Tina Fang, head of the public defender’s office; District Attorney Sherry Caloia; and Don Bird, Pitkin County jail administrator.

The criteria for a program participant is offenders whose crimes have been committed due to mental-health issues, for instance individuals whose crimes were committed during a psychotic episode of paranoia. Participants must have a desire to recover and take responsibility for following through with treatments. Daily check-ins are part of the treatment routine and patients are expected to contribute to the program by performing volunteer work.

Once an individual is found appropriate for the program, a multitude of support surrounding critical aspects of the participant’s life are available, which includes help with medical management, housing, employment, and therapy sessions. These components of the program are valuable because they provide mentally ill offenders with essential tools that provide them with what they need to survive in society. The program benefits participants and by lowering the possibility of reoffending and lengthening their life expectancy. Someone afflicted with schizophrenia, for instance, has a life expectancy that is 25 years shorter than the average.   

For mentally ill people it is a hardship to obtain and sustain a job and housing, and thus hard to pay for medical care. When mentally ill offenders are treated by locking them up, they become entrapped in a dire situation that they can’t escape.

Unfortunately, The Wellness Program cannot help everyone. One woman, who has lived off and on in the Aspen area for years, has been arrested 31 times since 2007, often for misdemeanors like trespassing. A man who was recently sentenced to prison for a year after his eighth DUI conviction told a judge that he found himself unable to reach out for help with his alcoholism.

The woman will likely not have the opportunity to benefit from the program because she won’t volunteer for the court, which comes with requirements like taking prescribed medication. The man could qualify if he is serious about addressing his alcohol problem.

Perhaps no one is happier about the new court than Bird, the longtime head jailer.

He and Assistant Aspen Police Chief Linda Consuegra approached Fernandez-Ely several years ago about establishing a legal wellness program. Bird said he was prompted after watching a webinar put on by the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Corrections about mental illness in jails.

Originally, when the “problem-solving court” was presented to the Aspen prosecutor at the time, it wasn’t well received because the prosecutor believed the proposal was not worth the investment because there weren’t enough people to justify establishing the new system. The idea was validated when Judge Ely was willing to give the program a try because she perceived the program as a solution to the problem of what to do about mentally ill offenders. 

Colorado typically ranks low in terms of per-capita funding for mental health, resulting in a drastic shortage of beds for people experiencing a mental illness-related crisis. The problem is worse on the Western Slope and even more so in the Roaring Fork Valley.

During an interview with The Aspen Daily News, Bird exhibited an isolation cell constructed for a mentally ill inmate placed on M1 hold, which is a safe place for offenders who are a danger to themselves and others. The isolation cell is insulated with soft, vinyl-like walls that provide protection for individuals who could pose a danger to themselves. The room is the only place in the upper valley that is sufficient for holding such a person.  

A state statute mandates that every inmate in a protective custody hold be separated from other inmates. When there is more than one inmate that needs an isolation room, Bird is prepared with an alternate plan. Staff simply removes the furniture from an available holding cell in the jail’s maximum security wing and the room is ready for an M1 hold.

Bird clearly states, “It’s not about them being criminals, it’s about them having a mental-health episode.” 

“But for many, jail and an isolation cell represent the only place to go” The lack of beds for crisis stabilization is a nationwide crisis, said Andrea Pazdera, program director of Mind Springs Health.

“We have this crisis federally that there aren’t enough beds for stabilization or psychiatric hospitalization,” she said.

Colorado is one of the worst states in the nation in terms of per-capita bed availability for crisis stabilization, and the Western Slope “has fewer beds per capita than even the statewide average,” Pazdera said. “It’s a huge problem.”

Such beds at hospitals in Grand Junction and Pueblo usually have waiting lists that stretch for months.

So the wellness court, the manual and contract of which Pazdera wrote, aims at alleviating the conditions that can lead to a crisis.

The program strives to use every strategy possible to help participants thrive. Endorsements may include additional therapy, medication or more extreme measures. Judge Fernandez-Ely stands strong by her promise to the participants and her team members, “Jail time for failing in The Wellness Program is a very, very last resort,” she stated. 

Inmates who display successful outcomes resulting from The Wellness Program are generously rewarded with everything from gift cards to sporting events or a simple praise. Judge Fernandez along with the collaboration team researched until they found the perfect setting for an elevating graduation ceremony. The Denver suburb of Centennial has a similar court system program where the team debuted on Nov. 8. The celebration revealed that cake and congratulations can be very inspirational for everyone. 

Law enforcement in Aspen and Pitkin County operate in an unprecedented manner. Bill Linn, assistant chief of police should be commended for ensuring that every officer in the department received education in the area of mental illness three years before the program was incepted.  

Assistant chief, Linn specifies, “It was specific training for police officers to try to recognize people who are operating at some level of diminished capacity,” he said. “For example, someone on the street who might be making bad decisions because of alcohol is very different from someone on the street who has something congenital, something that is a condition.”The training involved how to recognize those differences in people and how to intervene in a manner that is appropriate. 

Pitkin County Sheriff, Joe DiSalvo confirms The Wellness Program impeccably complements the department’s community policing principals, in which models resolving problems as opposed to merely arresting people.   

Sheriff Di Salvo endorses Judge Fernandez-Ely as the most preeminent person to oversee The Wellness Program because of her unfaltering humanitarian values.

Fernandez-Ely humbly admits, she’s only banged her gavel once in 13 years behind the bench (both parties in a civil case laughed along with her afterward, she said). The judge contends that people know what they need to do and simply need encouragement and support to do it.

“It’s people’s court,” she said.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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