AURORA | Beyond being tasked with enforcing the law, local police often find themselves tasked with being mental-health professionals, too.
Rarely, said Adams County District Attorney Dave Young, are situations where someone is battling some mental health issue easy for police officers to deal with.
“The easy thing to do is just book them and put them in jail, but they don’t want to do that, that’s not going to do anybody any good,” he said.
Adams County officials announced early this month that the Adams County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council was one of 20 groups around the country to receive $50,000 from the MacArthur Foundation to fund initiatives aimed at driving down incarceration rates.
The Adams County program will see Thornton police officers paired with mental health professionals in an effort to steer cases that may be better treated in a clinical setting away from jails.
Young said that while this initial program is focused on Thornton, the goal is to spread the effort to the rest of the county, including Aurora.
MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge doles out $100 million a year to programs aimed at decreasing the number of people incarcerated, and this year the Adams County program was the state’s lone recipient.
“Local jurisdictions are leading the way on justice reform,” MacArthur President Julia Stasch said in a statement announcing the funding. “Demand for reform at the local level is considerable and growing, as evidenced by the number, diversity, and creativity of the applications we received. This momentum is encouraging, particularly as the federal justice reform landscape evolves and shifts.”
According to the statement, Adams County’s CJCC will focus on establishing “a secure data linking system that connects Thornton Police Department and the Community Reach Center to better understand the volume of critical incident response calls related to mental health crises and how these relate to service intake and diversion from arrest.”
Young said the program is important because a large chunk of the people the criminal justice system sees are dealing with some mental illness.
“This support from the Safety and Justice Challenge Innovation Fund creates an opportunity to improve how we deliver community-based mental health services to these individuals and manage them starting with their initial contact with a law enforcement officer,” he said in the statement.
Adams County Sheriff Michael McIntosh said about two-thirds of the inmates at the county jail have a mental illness, and that number is similar in many jurisdictions.
“Our collective goal is for effecting positive, system-wide changes, with the goal to divert this target population from custody into community-based treatment and to provide humane and effective treatment for those who must remain in jail,” he said in the statement.
Adams County has struggled with a booming jail population in recent years. The issue came to a head a few years ago when the jail put a controversial limit on how many inmates it would accept from local municipal courts.
Former Adams County Sheriff Doug Darr argued at the time that he didn’t have the staff to handle the inmate load local courts were sending, so he had to bar some municipal court offenders — which tend to be locked up for lower-level crimes than inmates from county and district court — to keep the jail safe.
That raised the ire of local leaders, especially in Aurora, where the municipal court has long prided itself on tackling more-serious cases than in other cities.
The two sides eventually worked out a deal, but jail crowding remains an issue in Adams County and around the state.
Young said for law enforcement, jail crowding is especially frustrating because if jail beds are full, it means some violent people may not spend the time behind bars that they should.
“We want to make sure the right people are in jail,” he said.