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Colorado pilots first-of-its-kind legal competency program for individuals with brain injuries

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DENVER (March 14, 2023) — Colorado's Office of Civil and Forensic Mental Health (OCFMH) is piloting a first-of-its-kind program to identify and treat individuals with brain injuries who are either already receiving or are on the waitlist for competency services. The program is in partnership with the University of Denver’s Forensic Institute for Research, Service and Training (Denver FIRST). This announcement comes as the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS), which oversees OCFMH, celebrates March as Brain Injury Awareness Month.

Competency is a legal construct that refers to an individual’s capacity to function meaningfully and knowingly in a legal proceeding. Research suggests that a history of brain injury is associated with a lower likelihood of restorability to competency and greater risk for re-conviction. In Colorado, at least 44% of individuals involved in the justice system have a history of reported brain injuries, according to a 2021 study on traumatic brain injury in community corrections. This program will help competency restoration providers implement best practices and treatment for individuals with brain injuries, leading to quicker and more effective outcomes for all. The program also assists with identifying appropriate referrals to community programs specializing in brain injury resources with the goal of streamlining transition efforts outside of the criminal justice system. 

“This partnership is an exciting expansion in the services we offer to Coloradans,” said Leora Joseph, director of OCFMH. “We’re grateful to Denver FIRST for joining us in one of the many innovative programs we’re piloting to eliminate the waitlist for competency services.”

The program is funded for a total of $948,729 for two years and has a goal to serve 400 individuals over that time. Following the pilot period, the program will examine outcome data and determine next steps.

"This innovative program — the first of its kind in the country — will provide the highest level of neuropsychological expertise to a population that is not only in high need but also typically unable to access those services,” said Jennifer McMahon, Denver FIRST program director. “We believe the partnership will identify important information about a person’s story so that they can move through the competency system more quickly and humanely, and so that treatment providers and monitoring personnel can be more aware of interventions that can facilitate learning and enhance prosocial behaviors.”

The program is funded through the Colorado Competency Fines Committee. The committee was established after CDHS was sued in 2011 for failure to provide timely competency evaluations and restoration treatment. CDHS has been subject to requirements resulting from the lawsuit and is currently under court oversight of a consent decree. The department is fined up to $12 million per year for non-compliance. The committee seeks to fund organizations and programs bringing innovative solutions to eliminate the waitlist for competency services. Funding is available for innovative behavioral health programs in local communities to provide treatment and support services for competency patients. Programs with innovative ideas are encouraged to apply, as well as rural communities and agencies. The full list of programs sponsored by the Fines Fund and more information about the fund itself is available on the Colorado Competency Solutions website.

The CDHS Office of Civil and Forensic Mental Health (OCFMH) operates Colorado’s two mental health hospitals, the Forensic Services Division and the Division of Mental Health Transitional Living. The office provides a continuum of mental health care that includes pre-trial restoration services, inpatient hospitalization and, soon, transition homes for community-based care.

The Denver Forensic Institute for Research, Service and Training (Denver FIRST) serves as a regional hub for expertise in forensic mental health. We foster community and university partnerships through a host of research, service and training opportunities. Current projects and partnerships include work with adults and juveniles involved with the criminal justice system. Areas of particular expertise include forensic mental health evaluations, outpatient competency restoration, immigration/asylum issues and forensic neuropsychology.

Media contact:
Jordan Johnson
Communications Manager