9th Judicial District Wellness Program aims to help mentally ill | AspenTimes.com

9th Judicial District Wellness Program aims to help mentally ill

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

After a year of planning and perhaps seven years of local discussion leading up to the planning, the 9th Judicial District Wellness Program is underway.

The program is designed to accomplish many goals, the primary one being to keep nonviolent individuals with mental-health issues out of jail after they have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, felonies or both.

To accomplish that feat, a system has been devised in which a committee known as the "Collaborative Team" will keep close tabs on the person for nine months, perhaps longer, ensuring that they take their medications, seek employment, refrain from using drugs and alcohol, interact socially in a positive manner, maintain a stable residence and the like.

Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely and many others involved with the 9th Judicial District Court and area law enforcement systems resurrected the idea for the program about a year ago, the judge said. They formed a task force and met four times before coming up with the basic outline that will guide the program.

She credited Pitkin County Jail Administrator Don Bird for coming up with the idea many years ago. The effort represents a "problem-solving approach" within the judicial arena in lieu of traditional "punishment" systems, Fernandez-Ely said.

"Jail may be counterproductive (in many cases)," Fernandez-Ely said. "How can you punish someone for an illness?

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"Also, I think this program will help us learn more about these issues from the people who suffer them, in a trusting atmosphere. I honestly think that's one of the big benefits. Most of the time, they know what they need."

Asked if the new program would present large amounts of work and expenses for court, law enforcement and social-service entities, Fernandez-Ely replied, "Jail is a lot of work. It's expensive, $133 a day in Pitkin County. It costs (a lot of money) for law enforcement, jail, court employees to all come together to court in a case cycle, whereas at least this will put some of those expenses out front and actually change the behavior and find the level of stabilization of the individual."

The program is entirely voluntary. A person with mental-health issues who is accused of a crime can opt to go the traditional judicial route, which may or may not involve incarceration and probation.

But no one will be accepted into the program unless there is a "disposition of the case," meaning the individual agrees to some type of guilty plea arranged with the District Attorney's Office and the court.

Those who enroll in the program must sign a contract with the Wellness Court.

"The specific plea agreement made with the district attorney in your case is stated in the Wellness Program contract," an official description for program participants reads.

Another section says, "The program requires medication compliance and follow-through with all recommendations made by your treatment team. You are responsible for participating and engaging in your own supervision."

For those who are accepted into the program, their cases will be tailored individually, Fernandez-Ely said. It wouldn't make sense for a first-time offender facing a single charge to be treated the same as someone who is a repeat offender facing multiple charges, for example.

She said that the program will rely on a system of rewards. In a study of other Colorado cities and towns that have similar programs, participants who successfully went through the required steps were treated to gift certificates, praise, applause — even food.

Those who are selected for the program but can't follow through with it, Fernandez-Ely said, will have to go through the traditional judicial processes all over again.

asalvail@aspentimes.com