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OPINION | Denver offers alternatives to those with mental health, substance abuse issues

July 26, 2019

There is no doubt that Colorado’s prisons are packed with people suffering from behavioral health issues and whose illnesses have put them on a path to incarceration. Your June 18 cover story, "Locking up Colorado’s mentally ill," accurately details the confluence of issues that led to this crisis. The deinstitutionalization movement shifted mental health patients away from state-run psychiatric hospitals. Instead of funding alternatives for treatment in the community, we have relied on the criminal justice system to handle people with mental health needs. However, in Denver, solutions are taking root, and that gives me hope.

Since assuming the role of Denver’s top prosecutor, I have been pleased with several positive developments with respect to how Colorado’s capitol city is responding to this problem. I believe these examples can serve as a model for other municipalities struggling with the issue of mass incarceration of people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Denverites sincerely care about this situation and spoke loudly when over 70 percent of voters passed the Caring4Denver ballot initiative last November. That initiative directs the city to collect 25 cents on every $100 purchase in sales and use tax to fund mental health and substance abuse treatment centers and services. Denverites have come to realize, accept and treat mental health and substance abuse as public health issues and recognize that a criminal justice response is not the best approach.

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