Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hope Where There Has Been No Hope

First ladies often take on an agenda when their husbands assume positions of power, and that is going to ring true in Colorado as well. Advocates for those with mental illness are cheering Jeannie Ritter as she takes on the problems of the the mentally ill in Colorado.

Our overburdened prison population is no secret and nearly twenty percent of that population has a mental illness. Colorado has consistently released those folks from prison without the means necessary to take care of themselves. They often recieve the medication that they need to stay stable while they are in prison but once they are released they are only given enough medication to last for thirty days. After that time is up, they are on their own, and often that means a return to street drugs or alcohol to combat the problems they face.

Realistically, we also need to address the need for substance abuse treatment and the deeper issue of sending people to prison who have addiction problems from a standpoint of public health policy instead of a punitive criminal justice one.

Jeanne Rohner, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Colorado, said the mood began to change when Jeannie Ritter started talking. "She brought hope where there was no hope," Rohner said. "The room just totally energized because they saw the potential that we could do something."

Mental health specialists say there are signs of movement. A bill before the state Senate would mandate expanded insurance coverage for mental illnesses, a measure that advocates see as important.

Another key public policy piece, Rohner said, is to divert mentally ill inmates out of the criminal justice system. As a longtime district attorney, Gov. Bill Ritter is well aware of the connection between law enforcement and the strains of mental illness and last week he announced he'll ask the legislature to fund an effort to reduce the prison recidivism rate. His proposal includes $3.1 million in 2007-08 for mental health services and substance abuse treatment and $858,438 for transitional mental health beds.

Rohner is convinced that the governor's initiative will benefit the state far more than simply adding more and more prison beds.

The state never has been a leader in mental health spending. For instance, in 2001 Colorado spent $64 per person on mental health services while the national average was $81. The state department of mental health, which has a $154 million budget for mental health services this year, plans to ask for an additional $77 million over the next five years.

Jeannie Ritter says that she has come to realize how mental health issues reach into so many different arenas. She had just returned from a meeting of the Denver Crime Prevention and Control Commission recently when she spoke to The Denver Post. She was taken with how many of those at the table saw the same problems but didn't have the right tools to deal with them.

Regina Huerter, executive director of the commission, offers a compelling example. On any given day, she says, 350 to 400 Denver County jail inmates are suffering from severe and persistent mental illness. They should be in treatment, she says. That costs about $12,000 a year per patient while incarceration runs about $30,000 annually. But the facilities and programs don't exist to accommodate them.

Denver Post Opinion

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