Mental health court celebrates one year

First districtwide mental health court in Colorado

Posted 1/25/11

Participants in the 18th Judicial District Mental Health Court gather every Friday for their scheduled update with the court. They are a mix of young …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Don't have an ID?

Print subscribers

If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.


Click here to see your options for becoming a subscriber.

If you made a voluntary contribution in 2022-2023 of $50 or more, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one at no additional charge. VIP Digital Access includes access to all websites and online content.

Our print publications are advertiser supported. For those wishing to access our content online, we have implemented a small charge so we may continue to provide our valued readers and community with unique, high quality local content. Thank you for supporting your local newspaper.

Mental health court celebrates one year

First districtwide mental health court in Colorado


Participants in the 18th Judicial District Mental Health Court gather every Friday for their scheduled update with the court. They are a mix of young and old, every color and race, chatting in the hallways before the court opens its doors.

They are joined by case workers and a support staff from the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network, an organization instrumental in spearheading the first districtwide mental health court in Colorado.

The network hopes the mental health court becomes a model as a viable alternative for defendants with mental illness. The mental health court provides an option to treat those with mental illness, keep them out of the prison system and help them build a productive, crime-free future in a world that is often overwhelming.

“This is a problem-solving court for those defendants who qualify with a mental illness,” said Barb Becker, manager of the criminal justice program at Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network. “We had to stop criminalizing mental illness and, instead, treat it. We want to address substance abuse and address the criminal behavior to put an end to the cycle.”

Stopping the cycle

In a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice report on mental health problems of prison and jail inmates, the department reports that more than half of all prison and jail inmates in the U.S. have a mental health problem. The report includes inmates from those in federal custody to those housed in local jails.

The department reports that 44 percent of inmates with mental health problems who are in local jails have a criminal record with three or more prior incarcerations. About 76 percent of those inmates have a history of substance dependence or abuse.

It is a cycle the 18th Judicial District mental health court hopes to stop.

The district’s mental health court saw its first defendant in early December 2009, after about two years of planning, Becker said. District Court Magistrate Laura Findorff was assigned the docket at the request of Chief Judge William Sylvester. Without any previous experience with mental health issues, Findorff expressed early reservations about taking on the docket.

Sylvester sensed she would be a good match for the docket and, so far, his instincts appear to be spot on.

Findorff manages a weekly docket with 30 defendants who have qualified for the program. In the one year since mental health court debuted, about 150 inmates have applied for the program.

Applicants undergo a rigorous review to reach a plea agreement with the office of 18th Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers. The typical mental health court defendant is a habitual offender with a felony charge who faces several years of incarceration. Most if not all of the defendants have a substance abuse problem, Becker said.

If they successfully qualify for mental health court, they are given the option to participate in a two-year, in-house program to treat their mental illness, demand they stay drug- and alcohol-free and help them re-enter society. Defendants are often referred to the mental health court by defense attorneys, who must reach an agreement with the prosecutor’s office, which must get confirmation from the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network that the defendant qualifies.

It is a system that requires cooperation among agencies that are historically pitted against each other.

“They all really had to leave their hat at the door to make this happen,” said Gina Shimeall, mental health court coordinator and planner. “We couldn’t have done this without everyone’s willingness to make this program a success.”

Measuring success

With only one year under its belt, success at mental health court is measured in weekly sessions with Findorff, who oversees the court docket with a treatment status review that begins two hours before court is scheduled to start. She is familiar with each defendant and their histories and dispenses equal amounts accolades with discipline, depending on the defendant’s weekly progress.

On Jan. 21, the day mental health court celebrated its one-year anniversary, Findorff’s first file was a no-show. The participant missed the court date. Without skipping a beat, Findorff issued an arrest warrant and moved on to the next file.

Out of more than 20 participants she saw that morning, a few were in custody for going missing. Each one of them was welcomed back to the program with a renewed set of expectations. The goal in mental health court is to see each participant learn to overcome adversity and continue to move in a positive direction, Findorff said.

“This is a program where I feel everyone really has a chance to give back,” she said. “I want to help them get out of the criminal justice system. I grew up in a Wonder-bread life, I never faced the issues they’re facing. I want to tell them to take hold of what they want to be.”

Shimeall is quick to point out another measure of success at mental health court is the fact that no participant has faced criminal charges during their time in the program. Even those who went missing from the program for days at a time did not have contact with law enforcement during their absence, she said.

As Findorff made her way through the day’s docket, every participant received applause for the number of days they stayed sober, whether it was a week or more than a year. When Dale E., whose full name will not be used for privacy issues, received word he was celebrating 437 days sober and received five points for the week — the maximum possible — he got a standing ovation.

Dale entered the program after a lifetime spent in and out of the judicial system. At 39 years old, the Colorado native began using drugs at the age of 11 and faced his first felony conviction at 21.

He was sitting in jail on a robbery conviction when he got a visit from the mental health court representatives. His case file crossed the desk of the review board, he was interviewed and processed for qualification, and became the second participant in the program.

By then, Dale had lost most of his teeth to a meth addiction, overcame a heroin habit and spent a lifetime struggling with the effects of a severe, persistent mental illness. In his years spent in the judicial system, the mental health court was the first to offer him a real chance at rehabilitation.

“I didn’t know what to do or how to do it and they guided me through step by step,” he said. “I’m learning how to live a life. I wasn’t living, I was existing, barely.”

Setting goals

Today, Dale is on a regular regimen of medications, finishing up a work evaluation and job-training program and learning to live independently.

Shimeall found a dental program to replace Dale’s teeth, and his week’s homework from Findorff included instructions to draw up a menu and grocery list to transition him from a microwave and restaurant diet. She hopes to help him build life skills so he can eventually fend for himself.

He has the same goal. When Dale graduates from the program he looks most forward to reconnecting with a daughter he hasn’t seen in nearly 10 years. His dreams are driven by simple images of normalcy.

“Now I feel like I’m like the next person standing in line at the grocery store,” Dale said. “Like a normal person.”

The 18th Judicial Mental Health Court celebrated its one-year anniversary with a presentation by court dignitaries, local politicians and judicial representatives. Included in the crowd were the participants whose lives are changing by the court’s efforts.

“The old ways did not work,” Shimeall shared with the crowd who attended the celebration. “We are celebrating new and different ways.”

“I’m learning how to live a life. I wasn’t living, I was existing, barely.”

Dale Edgin, 39, participant in the 18th Judicial District Mental Health Court program.

Next week:

The program phases, reward system and housing at the 18th Judicial District Mental Health Court. Find out what is expected of participants to graduate from the program and how the mental health court helps improve public safety by rehabilitating lifetime criminal offenders.


Our Papers

Ad blocker detected

We have noticed you are using an ad blocking plugin in your browser.

The revenue we receive from our advertisers helps make this site possible. We request you whitelist our site.