How WellPower is Diverting Individuals with Mental Illness from Jail

Justin is a person who is experiencing homelessness and lives with mental illness. To stay warm, he slept in a restricted public area in Denver and was arrested for trespassing.

Competency Evaluation and Restoration

When Justin attends his court proceedings, the judge finds him incompetent to proceed. If a judge, attorney or public defender suspects that a defendant cannot understand the court system, their charges, or their legal rights, they can raise the issue of competency.

A licensed psychologist evaluates Justin and provides an opinion to the court regarding his competency to stand trial. The judge orders Justin to inpatient (24/7) competency restoration. This takes place at the Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, the mental health state hospital.

Competency restoration programs help educate patients about navigating court proceedings, their charges and their basic legal rights. The goal is for the person to pass a competency evaluation and proceed through their court case.

On any given day, the waiting list at the state hospital has hundreds of people. Justin is placed on the waiting list.

Justin spends months in custody waiting for a bed. At this point, he has not been convicted of a crime. He has been sitting in custody which deteriorates his fragile condition. Being in custody is isolating and traumatizing, especially for someone with severe and persistent mental illness. Justin begins to think about hurting himself and others.

If this had been a case without the complications of mental health competency, Justin would have already been convicted of trespassing and given probation. And he would be back out in the community living his life.

Justin is a fictional character. However, hundreds of people in Denver share an experience like his.

A Step in the Right Direction

In the last few years, programs have emerged to help alleviate the waiting list for the state hospital and divert people away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate care.

This comes after grieving family members and frustrated Coloradans galvanized and sued the state for not having a process to get people from jails to the state hospital faster.

WellPower’s Community Based Enhanced Restoration (CBER) is one of these programs. Our case managers work alongside the courts to get people out of custody on a personal recognizance bond (a bond with no fee, also called a PR bond) and connect them with community-based mental health services.

“We built these programs in 2019 and now we work with the courts and let them know that we have programs that exist if they are able to provide a PR bond,” said Conor Johnson, CBER program manager. “The judge feels more comfortable providing this person with a PR bond as long as they are working with the WellPower team.”

CBER provides community-based services that include assessment, case management, access to group counseling, support for housing and employment and access to psychiatric care and medication management.

The focus is to reduce the likelihood of recidivism, improve mental health and overall well-being and promote community integration for individuals experiencing severe and persistent mental illness, serious traumatic brain injuries and development disabilities.  

The North Star goal is to restore competency so that an individual can participate in their own defense in court, without sitting in a jail or hospital for months before doing so.

A True Diversion Program

In the last year, the WellPower criminal justice team also launched Competency Diversion (CD) a program for individuals who have a repeated history of being found incompetent in a criminal case. If these individuals engage with WellPower for six months, with positive treatment orientated work, their case is completely dismissed.

“We know there is a subset of individuals who are continually going through the competency system, and we wanted a better solution for people sitting in custody or going to restoration for months,” continued Johnson. “This is a true diversion program; they don’t have to have an evaluation, they don’t have to sit in custody and wait for a bed and they don’t have to go through restoration, saving time and money for everyone involved.”

Housing as a critical first step

The lack of affordable and adequate housing is a huge barrier for this population. Housing acts as a critical first step to get someone engaged in treatment.

Both the CBER and CD programs are fortunate enough to be able to provide temporary housing. Motels and sober living are the options that are frequently provided, both expensive. A lot of what the programs can offer is dependent on funding.

Another crucial piece is ensuring individuals know how to navigate the transitional housing system once they are out of the programs. In the CD program, they have seen success with individuals who are able to find employment. This sets them up to find housing after they are restored to competency.

“These programs will continue to grow for this disenfranchised population,” concluded Johnson. “Our teams need to be built up so we can continue to divert people out of custody and restored in the community.”