How a Quarter Can Keep Struggling Non-Criminals in Denver Out of Jail
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How a Quarter Can Keep Struggling Non-Criminals in Denver Out of Jail

Tonight will mark the official launch of Caring 4 Denver, a proposed ballot measure that aims to raise $45 million annually a quarter at a time in order to increase the amount of mental health and substance abuse services in the city. State representative Leslie Herod, one of the concept's main backers, stresses that this funding will also help law enforcement, since people struggling with such issues all too often wind up behind bars even when they haven't committed a crime.

"We need to do something more proactively to get them the services they need," says Herod, who'll be on hand at the June 14 launch, "and not just put them in jail."

Similar issues have bedeviled state officials for years. Note that in early 2017, a task force appointed by Governor John Hickenlooper issued recommendations about ending so-called M-1 holds — a rule that allows a mentally ill individual who causes a disruption in a public place to be legally held in jail for 24 hours, whether or not that individual has broken a law or not. Such scenarios are particularly problematic given the lack of space at many correctional facilities, which may lack the resources to truly address non-criminals in crisis.

The Caring 4 Denver ballot text has not been finalized. But here's the current version, as featured on the initiative's website:

A one-quarter of 1 percent sales and use tax rate — which is 25 cents on a $100 purchase — to be used for improving the quality, availability and affordability of community based mental health and substance abuse care in Denver by providing at least $45 million annually to provide:

• Mental health services and treatment for children and adults;

• Suicide prevention programs;

• Opioid and substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery programs;

• Affordable housing and case management services to reduce homelessness, improve long term recovery and reduce the costly use of jails and emergency rooms.

Representative Leslie Herod is among the prominent supporters of the Caring 4 Denver proposal.
Representative Leslie Herod is among the prominent supporters of the Caring 4 Denver proposal.
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"We know that mental health and substance abuse are huge concerns in Denver and across the nation," Herod says, "and it's incumbent on us to do something to help."

For example, she continues, "the suicide rate is up everywhere and is extremely high in Colorado — and we have a really high suicide rate among our young people. Suicide is the second-highest cause of death in Denver right now, and surveys have shown that one in eight students at Denver Public Schools have seriously considered suicide. It's a huge problem, and we need to address it by providing community-based resources so that our young people will have what they need."

Herod also highlights the startling number of overdoses in the Mile High City: "There are three overdoses in Denver every day, and heroin deaths are up nearly 1,000 percent since 2002. We also know that four in ten people in Denver know a friend or have a loved one who struggles with substance abuse or mental health issues, and when we did an initial poll on the ballot language, 80 percent of Denverites said they cared about this issue and wanted to do something to help. This will allow them to do so."

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann is also a Caring 4 Denver booster. Herod says the DA understands that "what we're doing right now doesn't work and it's costly; it diverts the attention of law enforcement from other safety needs the community has. But law enforcement's hands are tied. They have to take action when they see something happening on the street — but if they could move people in crisis to a facility, get them to detox, get them the services they need, they would. Caring 4 Denver will help do that — and it also allows for co-responders, more mental health and substance abuse professionals who can ride along with Denver police when it's appropriate."

Herod points out that "law enforcement can come together and request funding services the community needs. That's already happening in Seattle, whose system has been a model for us. It's proven to keep people out of jail and get people to recovery."

An image from the Caring 4 Denver website.
An image from the Caring 4 Denver website.

Getting progressive policies in place isn't easy, as Herod knows well. She was a big supporter of a pilot program for a safe-use injection site that was recommended by a special committee tasked with addressing rampant opioid abuse in Colorado, but it failed at the Colorado General Assembly earlier this year. Although she hasn't given up on the idea ("We will continue to find ways to ensure that a safe-use site is legal in Denver," she says), she thinks the elements at the heart of Caring 4 Denver will be less controversial. "There's overwhelming support to be able to access more services," she maintains. "Everyday Denverites are saying, 'I want to do something about this. I've been impacted by this issue, too.'"

Caring 4 Denver backers need to assemble 4,726 signatures by August 13 in order to get on the Denver ballot; Herod says the campaign will rely on both professional collectors and volunteers to get the job done. And based on her conversations, she thinks plenty of people will step up.

"I was at a coffee shop the other day and someone was asked, 'How was your weekend?'" she recalls. "And his response was, 'A friend's daughter committed suicide and I went to the funeral.'" After a pause, she adds, "I don't want to have to keep going to these funerals and not do something about this. And we can."

The Caring 4 Denver launch will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 14, at Finn's Manor, 2927 Larimer Street. Scheduled attendees include Herod, Mental Health Colorado president and CEO Andrew Romanoff, MHC advisory boardmember Evan Silverman, and Mental Health Center of Denver president and CEO Dr. Carl Clark. Click here for more information.

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