07 May 2007

People With Issues On Capitol Hill

The May issue of Life on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood newspaper in Denver has several stories about how mental health and substance abuse issues play out in daily life here. (It has no website; an appalling short coming for a free neighorhood newspaper.)

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In "Inmate suspected in Denton murder", by Rory Seeber (front page), it recaps the decision of the Denver Police Department to name John Lee Carson, 31, as a suspect in the 2005 murder of Brenda Denton, at the time of her death, a 38 year old criminal justice and psychology student at Metropolitan State College who lived in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

He is currently serving an eight-year sentence in the Buena Vista Correctional Facility for two unrelated 2005 assaults, which occured afte Denton's murder. . . . Accused murderer Caroson has been judged to be mentally ill and has spent varying amounts of time in psychiatric hospitals in the past decade. A drug-user said to be a former acquaintance of Denton's, he was on three years of supervised probation for stabbing a man when Denton was murdered.

If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times -- preventable tragedies, which is what more and more of them become as we understand them better, are something that public policy can address. This is one of them.

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In his "it's always Something" column, Don Becker describes (at page 37) an incident with his schitzophrenic neighbor and friend who started playing music "REALLY LOUD 24/7" when she stopped taking her meds. The incident, which resulted in observation in a locked mental ward after a police call five days after it started, is described lovingly and carefully through Becker's eyes. He notes that his neighbors "looked at me expectantly, as though it was tacitly assumed that I was the unofficial Mental Health Crisis Block Captain." He is in jest, of course, but the idea isn't a bad one, as is his skepticism of the current response which is "Sending a Denver police officer with a deadly weapon to haul Crystal off to the psych ward."

There were no tragedies in this case, but the pervasive undercurrent of the story is that this kind of thing is a challenge even to the healthy civil society of a neighborhood like his at 13th and Washington in 2007, a question that was punctuated by an unstated and unanswered question, "what would be better?" Maybe we need official or unofficial Mental Health Crisis Block Captains.

The other subtle point worth noting in the column is that for all of their alleged anonymity, dense urban neighborhoods have more community than they are given credit for having.

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Finally, Vanessa Martin in a story entitled "Drug Court handles non-violent offenses" (front page), discusses the reopening a a revamped Drug court in Denver that handles 40%-60% of the 2,200 to 2,500 felony drug cases filed in Denver District Court each year. The program puts defendants in a diversion program within five days of their arrest allegedly freeing up to 130 jail beds a day "for more serious offenders."

The program puts offenders in treatment, does random drug testing, calls for community service, requires payment of fees and costs, and requires regular court appearances before magistrates (as well as a guilty plea). The program last 9 months for those who play ball, and at least two years for those who screw up (plus immediate sanctions). The program claims that 50%-65% of graduates get off drugs. It handles relatively minor possession cases only and the plea is accompanied by a deferred judgment allowing successful graduates to avoid a criminal record.

In short, at least something seems to be going right in Denver in taking a more sensible approach to drug problems.

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