Colorado agrees to accelerate inmate mental health evaluations

The Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People and the Colorado Department of Human Services announced a legal settlement April 9 requiring the state to improve its procedures to ensure people with disabilities received court-ordered competency evaluations in a timely fashion.

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In August 2011, the Legal Center sued the state, alleging that its practice of keeping people with mental illnesses languishing in jails, often for as long as six months, while awaiting evaluations to determine if they are competent to stand trial violates their due process rights.

The settlement mandates that Colorado admit pretrial detainees to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo in no less than 28 days. The monthly average for transfers must be less than 24 days and the state is alloted 30 days for individuals in county jails. It becomes effective in parts of the state July 1.

The state will be required to file monthly reports to the Legal Center for 10 years. The court will also supervise the agreement for a 10-year duration, though this time period can shorten if the state complies with the terms of the settlement.

“This is the first case we are aware of that requires the state to abide by strict timelines for evaluations,” Diane Smith Howard, staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, according to the Denver Post .”It’s a big deal because Colorado can lead the way in this area.”

The Legal Center filed a similar complaint in 2006, reaching a settlement with the state in 2009 following the opening of a new 200-bed psychiatric facility. But the wait times for people with mental illnesses needing evaluations began to expand again, prompting the most recent lawsuit.

“(The agreement) is totally comprehensive. We’re not going to see that unfortunate languishing in jail anymore,” said Denver attorney Iris Eytan, who credited the state for working quickly to settle the case, in the Denver Post article. “This is not going to be easy for them to do.”

The Legal Center is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.