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Colorado opens new beds for mental health care, but needs more

The waitlist for pre-trial defendants to get mental health services for competency restoration is more than 400 people long.

COLORADO, USA — Colorado's severe lack of mental health beds creates a series of problems.     One issue with the bed shortage is that people are waiting in jail for months rather than getting treatment to restore competency and stand trial. 

It's not good for those people who are presumed innocent until proven guilty. It's also not good for the crime victims left waiting for justice.

While one state lawmaker says Colorado is about 1,000 beds short, the state opened 22 new beds Monday in an attempt to make a dent on the long waitlist to access services.

"We are at a time right now where we are in a perfect storm of a mental health crisis, a medical staffing crisis, and a crime crisis," Leora Joseph, Director of the Office of Civil and Forensic Mental Health, said.

Monday's celebration at the Colorado Mental Health Hospital in Fort Logan came with the opening of 22 new beds to provide competency services for people arrested with mental health issues. Twenty-two new beds in a state where the waitlist to get these services is more than 400 people long. 

Joseph is realistic about the challenges she’s facing.

"Some people are waiting 100 days. Others don’t have to wait that long, and some are waiting longer," Joseph said. "No one at the department wants these people in jail. Everybody at the department wants to make sure that mentally ill people are getting the treatment and the help that they need."

Staffing is also a major issue. 

Right now, there are more than 80 beds at the state hospital in Pueblo that are going completely unused because the state can’t find enough people to staff them. The hospital in Fort Logan has an additional wing with 22 more beds. That can’t open that either because of staffing problems.

Colorado was sued back in 2011 for failure to provide timely competency evaluations. For the last couple of years, the department has been subject to a court ordered consent decree to get rid of this backlog.

"These are people who have not been found guilty of anything," said Judy Amabile, a Democratic State Representative. "They are simply incompetent to proceed with their legal case."

Amabile has fought to expand mental health services. 9NEWS asked how many new beds she thinks Colorado needs to fix the problem.

"It’s important. It’s small step. It’s more beds in Colorado," Amabile said. "We probably need 1,000 beds of one kind or another. This is 22 beds."

Twenty-two beds and the hope that this is a step in the right direction.

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