Program to get people into mental health services, out of criminal justice system resumes

Sady Swanson
Fort Collins Coloradoan

The adult mental health diversion program has resumed in the 8th Judicial District with the goal of directing people with mental health needs away from the criminal justice system and toward treatment.

Since March, the program has added flexibility on who can qualify and an expanded referral program in hopes of making a bigger impact in the community, 8th Judicial District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin said.

Diversion programs aim to act as an early intervention opportunity in the criminal justice system to get people who could benefit from treatment the health care they need instead of a punitive sentence.

Other programs that prioritize treatment already exist in the Larimer County court system, but the diversion program is the only option offering treatment through a court-sanctioned program without having to plead guilty to a crime.

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A pilot of the adult mental health diversion program in Larimer County launched in June 2019. In March 2020, due to COVID-19 restrictions on the courts, the program stopped accepting new referrals while still working with people who were already undergoing treatment, said Carrie Bielenberg, 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office diversion coordinator. The state funding for the program, issued through Senate Bill 18-249, was cut in June 2020. 

In the nine months the pilot program was running, 23 adults entered the program and 10 successfully completed it, Bielenberg said. People who do not successfully complete diversion have their cases processed through the court system.

A grant from the county’s Behavioral Health Services reopened the program to new referrals on March 1. Without the state funding restrictions, the program was able to expand who qualifies for the program, giving it the potential to serve more people.

Since March 1, four people have been accepted into the program, which receives between two and five referrals per month, Diversion Specialist Necole Hampton said. The program has funding to support 50 people through Sept. 30, and it will be able to reapply for the same funding annually, Bielenberg said.

Bielenberg said she's excited to be able to link "our community members who find themselves in the criminal justice system with the appropriate level of intervention to address their mental health needs."

'We want to intervene at different points'

Diversion programs fall on a spectrum of early intervention programs in the 8th Judicial District, Hampton said. Wellness Court and the AIIM program, which stands for alternatives to incarceration for individuals with mental health needs, are sentencing options or alternatives for people in the criminal justice system who need mental health care. 

“We want to make sure that each individual, each defendant, is in the right program or treatment process,” Hampton said, adding that she and others in the diversion office work with the other specialty courts "to make sure that the most appropriate offer is being made."

Cali Thole, director of forensic services at SummitStone Health Partners, said the behavioral health co-responder program is an even earlier intervention option that gets community mental health resources directly to people who may have entered or be close to entering the criminal justice system.

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“If we look at interventions in the criminal justice system, we want to intervene at different points,” Thole said. 

“I think (the diversion program) is a really good addition to that continuum,” Thole continued. “... The more things we can put at that early end of intervention, the more successful we can be at keeping people from getting too far down that road in the criminal justice system.”

Diversion programs fall somewhere in the middle on the spectrum, with people being accepted into and completing a program before they plead guilty or not guilty. Here's how it works in Larimer County:

  1. A case is referred to the diversion program in the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office by the jail, a co-responder, public defender or district attorney. 
  2. The person goes through a brief screening to see if they meet the requirements for the program, much like they would for other specialty courts. This screening looks at the facts of the case, previous criminal history and the person's interest in the program.
  3. If the person and their case meet the program's qualifications, SummitStone, the program's partner mental health care provider, does a more in-depth screening to determine the person's mental health and/or substance abuse treatment needs.
  4. If the person completes their six-month treatment program, their case will be dismissed. They're able to continue care through SummitStone as long as they'd like, Thole said. 

Thole said in an email to the Coloradoan that the majority of people in the diversion program have Medicaid, which is billed during their time in the program and after if they choose to continue treatment. If a client doesn't have Medicaid or another way to pay for the treatment after they complete the program, SummitStone can help the person find a different long-term treatment provider.

“While diversion is a specific track as far as getting into services, it really opens the door to any of SummitStone’s services for the individual,” Thole said.

SummitStone can also provide other services to clients — whether they're there for diversion or not. SummitStone Forensic Manager Jess Fear said during their initial assessments they'll also find out if the person has access to food or transportation, or if the person needs access to a phone to participate in remote therapy, then help connect the person to resources as needed. 

“By getting the client’s individual needs met and putting them in the right level of care, we’re going to be able to make some pretty big differences in making sure they get the right treatment,” Fear said.

The county has had a well-established juvenile diversion program for more than 15 years, Bielenberg said. Juveniles who are arrested or cited for any level of offense are eligible for the program.

Bielenberg said it took years to establish trust with the community that the program worked. It initially began with just low-level offenders, like the adult program, and has since grown to include those who have committed serious offenses. Bielenberg said their office hopes the adult program can eventually expand like the juvenile program.

Expanding eligibility

Since resuming in March, the adult diversion program has expanded who can qualify for the program and where referrals can come from.

In the prior iteration of the program, cases with victims were automatically not considered. Now the program takes into consideration who the victim is — is it a stranger or family member? — and the circumstances of the case, such as if a person with existing mental health needs is arrested for assaulting a family member trying to help during a mental health crisis.

Hampton said the program now looks at referrals on a case-by-case basis and is being more flexible in reviewing cases involving a victim.

Offering diversion as an option for cases with victims beaks down "some of the traditional barriers to get into diversion so that we can accept more people and have a broader impact,” McLaughlin said.

In following the Victim's Rights Act, Hampton said, the district attorney's office will consult with victims to determine if getting the person on a treatment plan is preferable for all rather than going through the court system.

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“(In some cases) we can all agree — police, DAs, victims, other community members — that the best course of action is going to be making sure that there’s accountability, that we address the behavioral changes, that this person doesn’t come back into the criminal justice system,” McLaughlin said.

Expanding where referrals can come from allows the program to potentially reach more people, Bielenberg said. Referrals used to only come through the jail, but now the program also accepts referrals from public defenders, mental health providers and even co-responders out in the field, Hampton said.

Thole said SummitStone, the district attorney's office, the public defender's office and other stakeholders of the program are brainstorming how to further expand who can make referrals to the diversion program “to include other programs within our communities to intervene earlier in that process, even from where diversion is right now.” 

Even if a case meets the qualifications for mental health diversion, Hampton said there may be other reasons why a referred case might not be accepted. Some referrals may be a better fit for other specialty courts or programs, like Wellness Court or the AIIM program. Some people who are referred to the program, while they do qualify, may choose to not participate. 

"We encourage referrals and would rather have cases referred, reviewed and determined not to qualify as opposed to never being considered," Hampton said in an email to the Coloradoan. "We want to cast a wide net and actively identify cases that may qualify."

Balancing community safety and treatment

McLaughlin said sending people who commit low-level crimes into the diversion program "can make a much bigger impact if we’re diverting them straight out of the system” instead of sending them to jail or probation.

Diverting low-level cases out of the court system also allows the district attorney’s office to focus on prosecuting more serious crimes, McLaughlin said — one of his stated goals when he ran for office in the November election.

“We want to make sure we’re keeping the community safe while also doing the least harm to folks in the criminal justice system as possible,” McLaughlin said. “That means if we can keep the community safe by giving someone one year of prison instead of 10, that’s what we’re going to do. If we can do that by giving someone one year of probation instead of jail, that’s what we’re going to do.

"And if we can do that by giving someone diversion instead of full-blown probation, that’s what we’re going to do."

Providing access to care and stability can prevent people from reentering the criminal justice system, Hampton said, which is the ultimate goal of the program.

“Our hope is to do the best we can to support mental health resources in the community, and make sure if that’s a primary need then that’s being addressed … and that that takes a priority in all considerations of any case,” Hampton said.

Adding mental health diversion on the spectrum of early intervention programs helps get people in the community the right level of care, Thole said. 

“(This program allows us to) intervene earlier on in the criminal justice system to help individuals really get the services they need to help them avoid going farther into the criminal justice system,” Thole said.

Sady Swanson covers public safety, criminal justice, Larimer County government and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at sswanson@coloradoan.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.