Colorado prosecutors and public defenders want mental health funding to fix justice system problem

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About three years ago, District Attorney Brian Mason came into work at the 17th Judicial District District Attorney’s office and, instead of opening a case or helping his colleagues, he closed his office door and walked away. is in bed.

“My palms were sweaty and my heart was beating so fast I couldn’t stop it,” Mason said. “And I wasn’t in that state for a day or an hour, but for several weeks and several months, triggered in part by a horrific double homicide scene that I personally came out on. I was basically in a state permanent panic attack.

Mason, now the elected district attorney for Broomfield and Adams counties, was the lead double homicide prosecutor at the time. He had gone to the scene, then looked over and over again at the crime scene photos as he pursued the case.

He couldn’t get the images of death out of his head.

“I really hit rock bottom,” he said. “It was debilitating and I needed help… If I hadn’t gotten that help, I wouldn’t have lasted in the profession, and I certainly wouldn’t be a district attorney today.”

Mason recovered through professional therapy, and he is now supporting an effort by Colorado lawmakers to earmark $500,000 to bolster mental health services for public defenders and prosecutors across the state.

The bipartisan bill, SB22-188, seeks to fund counseling services, secondary trauma education and peer support services for prosecutors and public defenders. The bill would give $250,000 to the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office and $250,000 to the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, which the organization would then distribute to the individual district attorney’s offices.

Research has shown that lawyers are at higher risk for depression, suicide and substance abuse than people who don’t work as lawyers, and lawyers face significant secondary trauma on the job, according to the American Bar Association.

Last summer, an assistant district attorney for the Fourth Judicial District, which covers El Paso and Teller counties, took his own life after sending a lengthy email to everyone in the district attorney’s office. in which he described workplace grievances.

The email sparked a major effort to try and locate the assistant district attorney, who disappeared for several days after the email was sent, office spokesman Howard Black said.

“It was on its own,” Black said. “You have someone in pain and you can tell they are in pain. It was full court press trying to find him and get help, message him, any way possible, family involved, it was – there wasn’t much sleep for a few days until he was found.

The prosecutor’s body was found in early August in Chaffee County; his death sent shockwaves through the district attorney’s office, who brought in outside therapists for his colleagues.

“It’s all the guilt, the ‘Oh, shouldn’t we have seen that, should we have done that? ‘” Black said. “…It took a long time, and the healing is still ongoing. There is still a lot of pain.

He said any additional funding for mental health programs would be welcome and the office is in the process of setting up a peer support program.

The money in the bill will allow some offices to bolster their existing programs while others may be able to provide training for the first time, district attorneys said.

“This work is expensive”

Colorado’s state public defender’s office started a peer support program about two years ago, but did so without any additional funding or outside resources, said James Karbach, director of legislative policy. from the office.

The public defender’s office, which has about 1,000 staff statewide, now has about 10 peer helpers who have seen a growing demand for their help. If the bill passes, the public defender’s office could use the funds to strengthen the peer support program.

“We know that this work takes a heavy toll on the people who do it, including their mental health, and that we need to support them,” said Megan Ring, who leads the state office.

Public defenders can currently seek mental health care through their health insurance or on their own, but they’ve run into hurdles with planning and finding therapists who understand the work, Karbach said.

“We see very difficult subjects in these cases which involve acts of harm and violence towards others. We also regularly interact with customers who are having the worst experiences of their lives,” Karbach said. “Furthermore, we are in an adversarial environment in the courtroom, which can be tense and difficult, and filled with conflict. And we have long working hours and very heavy workloads where we have to move very quickly from case to case.

Mason and other district attorneys said they hope the increase in mental health services will also help their offices retain prosecutors at a time when it’s tough to stay on top.

“I just lost a 17-year veteran of the prosecutorial community a few months ago due to burnout and mental health,” Mason said. “He didn’t go into another prosecutor’s office, he just left the prosecutorial profession altogether.”

Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said his office cobbled together funding for mental health training through grants and temporary sources, but money from the bill would provide more funding. permanent. He added that prosecutors and public defenders must take care of themselves in order to do their best work, which often has long-lasting and far-reaching impacts.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest that whether someone is showing up at the courthouse in a traffic case or serving as a juror in a homicide case, you want the person making those decisions to be sound in mind and body,” he said. mentioned. “You want this person to be up to the task.”

Not just traumatized lawyers

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that funding for the bill could also support non-lawyer staff in her office, like investigators, who are also exposed to trauma on the job. .

“We have an investigator and secretarial staff who struggled to handle the terrible case of a young boy who was essentially starved to death and whose body was placed in concrete and stored in a storage locker,” she said, apparently referring to death. of Caden McWilliams, 7 years old. “The photos of this are very disturbing…It’s not just the lawyers, it’s our staff who can be impacted by these scenes and the kind of horrific things we encounter.”

McCann said she thinks the funding would have the biggest impact on small Colorado district attorney offices, which otherwise couldn’t afford to pay for work-related trauma training.

The bill, which passed the Colorado Senate, was withdrawn from the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The funding set aside in the bill is a “good start,” Mason said, but isn’t enough to meet all of the needs. There are about 1,800 people working in district attorney offices across the state, according to an estimate prepared by Legislative Council staff.

“My story is not uncommon,” Mason said. “We don’t usually say it out loud.”

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