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 …
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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
“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
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
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.”
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
“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
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
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.”
Today, Dale is on a regular regimen of medications, finishing up
a work evaluation and job-training program and learning to live
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
“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
“The old ways did not work,” Shimeall shared with the crowd who
attended the celebration. “We are celebrating new and different
“I’m learning how to live a life. I wasn’t living, I was
Dale Edgin, 39, participant in the 18th Judicial District Mental
Health Court program.
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
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