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Hope for reentering the community

March 01, 2008

In the past 15 years the number of mentally ill individuals in jail or prison has risen fourfold, from 4% of the jail/prison population to 16% or more, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The rate of serious mental illness among people booked into U.S. jails each year is at least three to four times higher than the rate of serious mental illness in the general population. The problem is no less severe in Colorado. According to the state's Department of Corrections, the percentage of individuals with serious mental illness in its prisons is 20%, an increase of approximately 1% each year since 1991.

In 2000, the leaders of community organizations in Jefferson County, Colorado, came together with state officials to tackle this problem. The partners included:

  • Colorado Department of Corrections

  • Colorado Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice

  • Intervention Community Corrections Services, a nonprofit agency

  • Jefferson Center for Mental Health, the community mental health center serving three counties directly west of Denver

  • Jefferson County Justice Services

The partners were determined to develop a way to provide cost-effective community-based mental health services for offenders with mental illness who are leaving prison to keep them from reoffending and ending back in the criminal justice system.

The collaborating agencies researched programs nationwide to develop a service-delivery plan. The result was the John Eachon Re-entry Program (JERP). JERP's goal is to decrease recidivism and reduce the length of incarceration by providing community-based therapeutic services and responding to the community-transition needs of offenders with serious mental illness. The program is characterized by a continuity of treatment, access to medication during the transition out of prison and into the community, and collaborative team-based case management, all of which enhance the likelihood that program participants will effectively reenter the community.

(l to r) enrique conterno, vice-president, u.s. neuroscience, eli lilly & company; elaine cottier, lpc, therapist, jerp; harriet hall, phd, president and ceo, jefferson center for mental health; ralph aquila, md, chairperson of the lilly reintegration awards committee
(l to r) Enrique Conterno, vice-president, U.S. Neuroscience, Eli Lilly & Company; Elaine Cottier, LPC, therapist, JERP; Harriet Hall, PhD, president and CEO, Jefferson Center for Mental Health; Ralph Aquila, MD, chairperson of the Lilly Reintegration Awards committee. Photographer: Greg Puls

Eachon was an executive manager at the Jefferson Center who died of cancer while JERP was being developed. He is remembered for his leadership in fostering local collaborations to address unmet mental health needs in the community. It was his dedication and commitment to finding the "common ground" for interagency service providers working to improve the lives of persons with mental illness, as well as his untiring work on the program's development, that inspired the JERP Steering Committee to name the parole project in his honor.

The Jefferson Center is JERP's lead agency. DOJ's Bureau of Justice Assistance initially funded JERP, which now receives state funding. The Jefferson County and state agencies also provide in-kind and financial contributions totaling an estimated $371,650 per year.

JERP annually provides 30 to 45 parolees with transitional housing (a halfway house for offenders) or residential treatment. The program offers comprehensive, individualized wraparound mental health and substance abuse treatment, along with correctional supervision services. A multidisciplinary team consisting of a case manager, parole officer, two mental health professionals, and medical staff members provide assessment, evaluation, and services to offenders.

In its first two years JERP has proven highly effective in achieving its objectives, successfully reintegrating consumers into the community and meeting the challenges inherent in working with this population. For example, approximately:

  • 40% of all JERP participants are employed and have independent housing in the community;

  • 25% have obtained Social Security benefits;

  • 30% have accessed the Jefferson Center's residential services; and

  • 35% have returned to school (college or trade school).

The Colorado Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice, is evaluating JERP's outcomes, and this year the agencies aim to demonstrate the program's system-wide cost savings versus incarceration. Last year JERP won first place in the Lilly Reintegration Awards' Social Support category.

Most consumers come to the program with no belongings, no money, no identity, and minimal or no family/community support—virtually every basic need must be met to help them succeed. Staff assist clients in obtaining identification to access healthcare and other appropriate benefits/resources. Most of the participants are incapable of accessing all the necessary supports to transition from prison to the community. Before JERP, many found themselves in a revolving door from prison to community and back to prison again, a vicious and costly cycle that impacts more than just the offenders.

“If it were not for this program, I would have been held in prison for two more years until I reached my mandatory release date and then paroled to the streets,” one JERP client explained. “If I were paroled to the streets without the support and therapy of this program, it would have only been a matter of time before I became overwhelmed and began self-medicating with alcohol, which would have most certainly led to my reoffending in some manner. And I am sure that the rest of the men in this program would have suffered the same fate, as most of them have been cycling in and out of the system. Thankfully, I am successfully being treated and am being given an opportunity to reenter the community healthy.”

Harriet Hall, PhD, is President and CEO of the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, the community mental health center serving Jefferson, Gilpin, and Clear Creek Counties west of Denver. Dr. Hall chairs the Task Force for the Continuing Examination of the Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness Who Are Involved in the Criminal Justice System. The Jefferson Center, a member of the Mental Health Corporations of America, is celebrating its 50th anniversary and serves more than 6,000 people annually.

For more information, contact Dr. Hall at or (303) 432-5001.

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