When Mental Health And Criminal Charges Collide

Mental health and criminal charges go hand in hand. Many forms of mental illness can cause people to act out or commit crimes. When they do, you need to know what your options are for treatment, and what you can do to get well rather than develop patterns of criminal behavior.

This blog post will discuss how undiagnosed or untreated mental health problems can cause problems in your criminal case. It will discuss the Colorado Mental Health Diversion Program and Mental Health Court and discuss solutions for people facing mental health and criminal charges in other places around the state.

Problems with Mental Health and Criminal Charges Go Hand in Hand

Statistically, more people in jails and prisons have mental health challenges than the general population. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), among jail inmates, 44% had been told they had a mental health disorder in the past, and 14% met the threshold for serious psychological distress (compared to 5% in the U.S. generally). Among the most common diagnoses were:

  • Depression (24%)
  • Bipolar disorder (18%)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (13%)
  • Schizophrenia and psychotic disorders (9%)

On top of that, approximately half of all prisoners and jail inmates have a controlled substance addiction or dependence, which is a form of mental illness treated with medication and behavioral therapy.

The connection goes both ways. People with significant mental health challenges or substance addictions are more likely to face criminal charges than their neuro-typical counterparts. Depending on their diagnosis, they could have difficulty controlling impulses toward theft or violence, or they could be affected by the symptoms of withdrawal and committing crimes to seek out their next fix.

Traditional Jail Sentences Create Patterns of Repeat Offenses

A jail setting often does little to help inmates with mental health problems. While state jails and prisons are required to provide a level of mental health treatment, many people who are incarcerated find their mental health problems poorly controlled. They may have trouble accessing their medication, or may not receive the same time in individual therapy they would outside the jail system. Those who enter prison addicted to alcohol or controlled substances may find their treatment options are limited. They may even be forced to go “cold turkey”, with limited likelihood of success.

All of this creates a high chance that once a person with mental illness completes his or her jail term, it is only a matter of time before they return. The chance for repeat offenses (often called recidivism) are especially high when substance addiction goes unaddressed during an inmate’s time in jail. That is because the thing that drove them to commit crimes in the first place — their mental illness or substance addiction — hasn’t been addressed. Instead, in the traditional model, they are expected to overcome their mental health challenges on their own, while in the community, to avoid getting sent back to jail.

Insanity Defenses Don’t Protect Most Criminal Defendants with Mental Illness

When you hear that a criminal defendant has a severe mental illness like schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, your first instinct may be that they could simply use that diagnosis as a defense to their criminal charges. However, Colorado’s “insanity defense” isn’t a big enough umbrella to cover most defendants’ alleged criminal behavior. The insanity defense only applies if:

  • Your mental disease or defect (such as cognitive impairment) meant that you were unable to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the act, or
  • Your state of mind at the time of the act prevented you from meeting the necessary mental state for the charged crime (i.e. you could not have intended to commit fraud because you did not know what you were saying was false).

Drug use at the time the offense is committed also doesn’t necessarily mean that you can be considered “not guilty by reason of insanity”.  In fact, in most instances, voluntary drug is not a defense to a case, though this is something that you should discuss with your lawyer. Because many mental illnesses do not directly affect a person’s ability to tell right from wrong, most criminal defendants are not eligible to use the insanity defense.

Colorado Tests Mental Health Courts & Drug Treatment Courts to Help Mentally Ill Criminal Defendants

The Colorado judicial system recognizes that that traditional convictions, sentencing, and punishment, don’t work for many defendants with a history of mental health and criminal charges. It has implemented two test programs that could help criminal defendants who qualify get the treatment they need to break their addictions, learn better coping techniques and behaviors, and avoid repeat offenses.

Colorado Mental Health Diversion Program

The Colorado Mental Health Diversion Program is a way for certain mentally ill defendants to avoid criminal convictions and get treatment for their conditions. It applies to defendants with unmet mental health needs (undiagnosed or untreated conditions) who are charged with low-level offenses without specific victims. Defendants who qualify have their charges diverted from normal criminal court while they go through a six-month diversion period which includes:

  • Mental health screening and assessment
  • Mental health treatment
  • Psychiatric medicine
  • Case management
  • Employment and housing assistance

If defendants complete the 6-month program with no new criminal charges and successful initiation of treatment, their criminal charges will be dismissed without entering a plea or receiving a conviction. As of the writing of this article, the Mental Health Diversion Program was offered in 4 districts, covering 9 counties:

  • Archuleta
  • La Plata
  • San Juan
  • Jackson
  • Larimer
  • Bent
  • Crowley
  • Otero
  • Boulder

Colorado Mental Health Court

The Colorado Mental Health Court is another option for some mentally ill criminal defendants. This court uses post-conviction probation and frequent review hearings to help defendants who face both substance abuse and mental illness. The mental health court’s goal is to “identify, assess, evaluate and monitor offenders with mental illness, create effective linkages between the criminal justice and mental health systems, and improve public safety by ensuring that participants receive high quality community-based services.” There are currently juvenile mental health courts in Jefferson and Adams counties, and adult mental health courts in 7 districts, covering 12 counties:

  • Jefferson
  • Gilpin
  • Denver
  • La Plata
  • Larimer
  • Pueblo
  • Fremont
  • Park
  • Arapahoe
  • Douglas
  • Elbert
  • Lincoln

Whether you will be able to take advantage of an insanity defense or mental health option depends on the charges you are facing, your mental health circumstances, and your ability to complete a set program. A criminal defense attorney experienced in dealing with mental health challenges can help you evaluate your options and decide whether a diversion program or mental health court is right for you.

At Aviso Law, LLC, our criminal defense attorneys have experience with the Colorado courts and stay up to date with the newest diversion programs and sentencing options. If you have a history of mental health concerns and are facing criminal charges, we can help you weigh your options and make the right choice for your treatment and criminal case. We are here to serve you and your family during your criminal matter and your recovery. We will help you understand how the laws work together, and identify your best way forward. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.

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