Editorial: Court’s wellness program on the right track

We can think of few local-government initiatives more compassionate, responsible and positive than the new Wellness Program put together by the 9th Judicial District court system, related law enforcement entities and others.

What the program aims to do is help nonviolent individuals with mental-health issues who have run afoul of the law to get back on track in life while also keeping them from being incarcerated. Being behind bars is bad enough for those who are relatively healthy physically and mentally, but for someone who has issues with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other such difficulties, the effects are much more difficult to overcome.

The program was spearheaded by a task force consisting of Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely, local jail administrator Don Bird, District Attorney Sherry Caloia and many other area leaders involved with the Aspen Homeless Shelter, Mind Springs Health, the Public Defender and Probation offices, law enforcement agencies and the like. In fact, the list of those to give credit is rather long, and we can’t fill this space with all of the agencies and people in the Roaring Fork Valley and other parts of the state who have joined forces to create the fledgling system.

They aren’t looking for credit, though. They simply are seeking to fill a vital need in the community by offering a useful alternative to putting people in jail. It’s similar to Drug Court and other forward-looking programs that are underway across the state and nation; basically, it’s a “problem-solving approach” within the judicial system instead of a process that emphasizes punishment.

Here’s how the program will work:

A person with mental-health problems who is accused of a crime (whether felony or misdemeanor) must seek to enter the program on a voluntary basis. A team set up by the court will evaluate his or her case to decide if they meet the program’s standards. There must be a “disposition of the case,” which may or may not involve some type of guilty plea, perhaps to a lesser offense.

A contract is signed between the person and the court. The person must go through certain steps, or phases, that show (and prove) that they are taking their medications, seeking or maintaining employment, living a healthy lifestyle, participating in counseling sessions, interacting positively with others and so on. The process can take as little as nine months or as long as 18 months, according to Fernandez-Ely.

The degree to which the team will monitor the person directly relates to the person’s case, their level of stability and the seriousness of the crime to which they’ve admitted.

Fernandez-Ely said it best when she recently told The Aspen Times, “Jail may be counterproductive (in many cases). How can you punish someone for an illness?”

We have faith and optimism in the court’s Wellness Program and wish it the utmost success.