Aurora specialty court’s mental health focus aiming to curtail repeat offenses

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AURORA | Stepping inside Aurora’s specialty court, called Females Utilizing Treatment and Undertaking Recovery Efforts (FUTURE),  is nothing like the adversarial scenes depicted on shows such as “Law and Order.”

Instead, attorneys and judges encourage and congratulate defendants for another week of staying on track.

Presiding Judge Richard Weinberg praises graduate Joanne Cordova on June 11 at the Aurora Municipal Courthouse. Cordova is the first graduate of Aurora's newest problem-solving court, called Females Utilizing Treatment and Undertaking Recovery Efforts, (FUTURE). FUTURE is a grant-funded program that aims to rehabilitate prostitutes who have been repeatedly arrested by Aurora police, through intensive probation that includes psychiatric treatment and weekly court visits. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)
Presiding Judge Richard Weinberg praises graduate Joanne Cordova on June 11 at the Aurora Municipal Courthouse. Cordova is the first graduate of Aurora’s newest problem-solving court, called Females Utilizing Treatment and Undertaking Recovery Efforts, (FUTURE). FUTURE is a grant-funded program that aims to rehabilitate prostitutes who have been repeatedly arrested by Aurora police, through intensive probation that includes psychiatric treatment and weekly court visits. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Aurora Municipal Judge Richard Weinberg said the program has seen an 85-percent success rate, with six participants who have graduated from the program since FUTURE began three years ago now living crime-free lives, and one who will graduate in January following surgery.   

Through the grant-funded program, the women are required to undergo intensive probation, with psychiatric treatment and weekly court visits.

“We purposely selected a very difficult subject, women arrested for prostitution with a dual diagnosis of mental health illness and substance addiction.  Additionally, from those who qualified, we only took those who scored the highest for risk of re-offending.  So while our results were small in numbers, they were pretty spectacular in supporting the validity of the concept of treatment courts,” he said.

He said the success of the FUTURE program led him to believe that Aurora needed a specialty court that could take on more offenders with mental health needs. 

Enter Aurora’s newest specialty court, a mental health wellness court which started this month and is open to anyone — not just women — who has committed repeat offenses and is diagnosed with significant behavioral health problems.

Weinberg and the Aurora municipal court staff conducted research to see just how much mentally ill offenders were impacting Aurora’s courts — what they found was substantial.

“The (city’s) IT department looked at the 50 highest users of court services, and the 50 people arrested most frequently over a three-year period accounted for 913 arrests,” he said.

Not only that, but Weinberg said those same 50 people, if sentenced to 30 days in jail, cost Aurora citizens $1.5 million over three years. Aurora police estimated they spend $250,000 a year dealing with calls relating to mentally ill offenders.

The new mental health court is geared at first toward a list of 200 residents in Aurora whom city police and fire officials have flagged as repeat offenders with mental health issues.

“We hope we’ll be able to service 30 people in the first year,” Weinberg said. “We want to get in, initially, highest users of services. If we get 30 of those people, we’ll reduce the criminal conduct of 500 cases.”

The new program consists of weekly court visits where participants receive mental health treatment. Weinberg said he also is working with Comitis Crisis Center to provide housing for some participants.

The city is budgeting $100,000 for the new court, according to Weinberg.

“The new asylums are county jails and prisons,” said Gina K. Shimeall, who is a planning coordinator for the new court.

Shimeall worked for the 18th Judicial District as a public defender for nearly 20 years and also coordinated that district’s mental health court, which has been operating since 2009.

“We purposely selected a very difficult subject, women arrested for prostitution with a dual diagnosis of mental health illness and substance addiction.  Additionally, from those who qualified, we only took those who scored the highest for risk of re-offending.  So while our results were small in numbers, they were pretty spectacular in supporting the validity of the concept of treatment courts,” he said.

Shimeall said jails have increasingly served the mentally ill  since the  1970s, shortly after the “deinstitutionalization” movement took place. During the 1960s, when the mistreatment of persons with mental illnesses in state mental hospitals started to gain national attention, many state institutions were shut down in favor of community-based, outpatient programs.

“The goal was to downsize mental institutions to a less restrictive, more human concept,” Shimeall explained. 

Instead the funding for those services for the mentally ill was never fully realized, and a gap in the national mental health system has existed ever since.

Nationwide, a 2006 federal study estimated that 56 percent of all prisoners in state custody suffered from mental illness, and 15 percent suffered from some sort of psychotic disorder. Mental health advocates say their treatment is almost uniformly substandard.

Colorado lawmakers banned solitary confinement for inmates with serious mental illness after a prisoner who had been held in solitary for much of his eight-year term was suspected of killing the state prisons chief, Tom Clements, in 2013.

“Probation and community corrections are good programs but not designed for this population,” Shimeall said. “Our goal is to do earlier intervention, collaborate with police and fire so we can prevent people from sinking further into their mental illness on the street.”

Colorado is home to more than 70 problem-solving courts operating in each of the state’s 22 judicial districts. Such courts include adult and juvenile drug courts, family/dependency and neglect courts, DUI courts, adult and juvenile mental health courts and veteran trauma courts.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.