A female in her mid-twenties entered into the 18th Judicial District Mental Health Court in June 2010 with legal charges of forgery, theft and escape from a community corrections program. She had a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and a social history that included abuse of methamphetamine, THC and cocaine; domestic violence; childhood sexual abuse and a suicide attempt.
Upon agreeing to voluntarily participate in the Mental Health Court, which is now called the Wellness Court, she entered into an intensive, six phase, two year program that included court appearances, random drug testing, treatment groups, job and life skill training and opportunities for work and volunteerism. When she graduated from the program in April 2012, she had accumulated 1,679 days of verified sobriety, had a job and was experiencing a healthy relationship with her husband. She thrived in the treatment program and continues to make steady progress.
The first court of its kind in Colorado, the 18th Judicial District Wellness Court was established in 2009 by the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network in partnership with the 18th Judicial District, the district attorney, public defender, and many other collaborators. The Court is open to defendants who have been diagnosed with a major mental illness such as bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression, or mental illness/substance abuse dual diagnosis and who have a pending non-violent, non-sex offense felony or felony probation violation.
Prior to the Court’s creation, the above story would have likely been much different. While individual judges in the 18th Judicial District had the ability to sentence offenders to community based treatment and supervision programs, many times the underlying issues of severe mental illness were not addressed and the problems resurfaced in new cases.
Currently, there are 32 active participants in the program. As of 2012, the program had graduated six participants; five of whom remain in after care, are clean and sober and have not committed a new crime. The sixth participant was discharged to a new state and also remains stable and has not committed a new crime.
“To the special kind of professionals who do this work, the successes of the program participants are very uplifting and serve as a constant reminder of why they chose this profession,” explained Joan DiMaria, chief operating officer of Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network.
The success of the program and its participants is largely dependent on having the right team in place. To help ensure this happens, Caring for Colorado has provided two grants to support the Wellness Court treatment team. Prior to funding the Wellness Court, CFC provided two grants to the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network - the first in 2004 to support a program that revolutionized the way a community health center works with law enforcement.
“The collaboration between the mental health treatment team and the judicial team makes a difference,” said DiMaria. “The combination of accountability and praise from the bench as participants complete the program’s six phases goes along way in increasing their self esteem.”
The collaboration is also beneficial from a financial standpoint. It is estimated that more than half of current program participants would have been sentenced to prison if not for the Wellness Court, costing the Department of Corrections more than $32,000 a year per inmate.”