The Pitkin County Jail in Aspen has a high number of inmates with serious mental health issues, according to a report by the Justice Planners. This correlation between mental health problems and incarceration is not coincidental, as the lack of support for individuals struggling with mental health often leads to involvement in the criminal justice system. Vincent Atchti, the president and CEO of the Colorado Division of Mental Health, explains that the criminal legal system and mental health are deeply intertwined, and this connection can impact the use of psychiatric hospitals. As a nation, the focus has shifted away from large psychiatric hospitals, resulting in an increase in the jail and prison population, as well as the number of homeless individuals who are unable to survive without adequate housing support.
Accessing the right mental health resources can be a challenging and costly process, creating barriers for individuals in need of support. Atchiti shares that some parents even rely on their loved ones being arrested so they can receive the care they require, as accessing mental health services can be prohibitively expensive. As a result, jails and prisons have become the largest psychiatric facilities in the country. The lack of accessible pathways to care can push individuals into crisis, causing them to lose their homes, turn to substance abuse, and ultimately become involved with law enforcement.
In Pitkin County, law enforcement aims to divert individuals from jail by connecting them to alternative resources when responding to calls. The county has adopted a less punitive approach and focuses on helping people instead of simply arresting them. When it comes to situations involving drug use and mental health, law enforcement partners with the Pitkin Regional Collaborative Response Team (PACT). This program combines mental health professionals and law enforcement officials to decriminalize mental illness and improve access to resources for those struggling with mental health and substance use. The goal is to keep individuals out of jails and hospitals and provide them with the least restrictive disposition possible.
PACT’s annual report shows that out of the 173 active calls PACT clinicians responded to in the field in 2022, only six people were transferred to prison. The majority of cases were resolved at the scene, or patients were transported to the emergency department or connected with community resources. This effort aims to keep individuals in their community with proper support and resources, rather than exacerbating their issues by transferring them elsewhere.
However, for individuals who do end up incarcerated, Pitkin County Jail provides mental health services to inmates. The goal is to reduce recidivism and support inmates while they are in jail. The jail contracts with a turnkey health clinic that offers mental health services, including access to medications and follow-up appointments. Inmates undergo medical and mental health examinations during the intake process, and if necessary, the turnkey clinic provides support for starting or continuing relevant mental health treatments. Inmates who enter without a prior diagnosis are referred to an outpatient medical facility for diagnosis, and case managers work with them to set up appointments. Funding for mental health treatment and case management is provided by Colorado’s Prison-Based Behavioral Services Program.
Atchiti emphasizes that individuals don’t have to be arrested to receive mental health or substance use care, and these services should be freely available in the community. The focus should be on providing accessible support and resources to prevent individuals from facing incarceration simply due to their mental health struggles.