Colorado’s jail system is backlogged and costing millions

The backlog in Colorado's jail system is keeping mentally ill people in limbo for extended periods.
Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 4:32 PM MDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

DENVER, Colo. (KKCO) - Hundreds of mentally ill Coloradans are in limbo, jailed as they wait to be evaluated.

Before a person with significant mental health problems can stand trial in the US, they must be found competent enough to participate.

The backlog the state’s psychiatric hospitals are facing has gone on for years, and Colorado is paying millions in fines as a result while hundreds of people sit in jail waiting for mental health treatment.

So long, in fact, that Colorado pays a total of $12 million a year in fines after being sued for the backlog. Director of the Office for Civil and Forensic and Mental Health Leora Joseph says that there are about 450 people on that wait list.

Joseph says that some people are waiting up to 100 days in jail before they can even begin the treatment they need. “We actually have empty beds in our state hospitals, but we don’t have the nursing staffing to take care of the patient,” said Joseph. “We can’t run a psychiatric hospital without a nurse. That is the issue that has caused this incredible wait list and this problem.”

The millions of dollars in fines Colorado is shelling out do not go to the people who sued them. Instead, the state is putting that money to use in pilot programs to try and help the people stuck in jail cells.

“One of the ways that we are attacking this problem as a state is looking for small groups of populations that sit on our wait list. Targeting groups of people and finding ways to help and potentially divert them out of the criminal justice system,” said Joseph.

The focus for now is on people with traumatic brain injuries. Programs Director at the University of Denver’s Forensic Institute for Research, Service, and Training Dr. Jennifer McMahon is leading a new program to find new ways to help people with brain injuries stuck in limbo.

“They’re kind of stuck in the system and not being able to get that treatment that they need,” said Dr. McMahon.

She says that at least 40 percent of Colorado’s incarcerated population possible have brain injuries. “That’s one of the things we’re hoping to identify. How many folks waiting in the competency system have a brain injury and are trying to navigate this process without the support that they need?”

McMahon said that it helps no one when injured victims wait in jail for months without getting treatment. She says she knows that the current approach isn’t working.

“Imagine trying to do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” said McMahon.

The state is under a consent decree as a result of the long backlog. That means the money paid in fines goes into a fund, where the state, the people who sued the state, and the special masters assigned to the case all get one vote on how to use it.