Out of the Shadows, Part 4 | Incarceration or rehabilitation: Routt County criminal justice system often tasked with issues it isn’t equipped to solve
Curt Schultz follows a similar routine every afternoon. Around 4:50 p.m., he hops on his bicycle from wherever he spent the day — sometimes at Bud Werner Memorial Library, sometimes on the Yampa River Core Trail, often at Double Z Bar & BBQ — and heads to Central Park Plaza.
He leans his bicycle either on the blocks of lawn that stretches between businesses or against the outside wall of a business. While the location varies, he usually picks a business close to the entrance of the plaza, near the intersection of Central Park Drive and Pine Grove Road. He then pulls out a series of items from his black backpack — a stained white visor, a Mountain Dew bottle filled with vodka and a crinkled cardboard sign that reads, “Out of work. Homeless. Anything helps.”
“It’s humiliating to be out here,” Schultz said.
As he sits at the edge of the median between Christy Sports and Central Park Liquor, Schultz looks either straight ahead or at the ground beneath him, rarely making eye contact with drivers except to thank them for the occasional cash donation, fast food container or grocery store bag full of food.
Schultz grew up in New Jersey, received a degree from Monmouth College in Illinois, then moved to Aspen to work as a ski instructor at Aspen Snowmass Ski Resort. While he was in Aspen, Schultz’s parents moved to Steamboat Springs, and Schultz began teaching skiing part-time at Steamboat Resort.
Many in the community, Schultz said, remember him as a talented skier and instructor, and are surprised to see him homeless and asking for money on the streets.
“Curt, is that you?” One driver says to him during an interview with Steamboat Pilot & Today.
“Yep, it’s me,” he responds in a soft tone, his face blushing red.
To maintain the cost of living in Aspen, Schultz picked up a side job working at a bar, where he often stayed out late and found himself drinking more frequently and more heavily over time, missing shifts at work and spending less time doing his hobbies: mountain biking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
As Schultz slipped deeper into drinking and partying, he said there was one drug that altered the course of his life: cocaine.
“I was working in night clubs and bars at night and doing way too much cocaine,” Schultz said. “Finally, I realized that the party scene was getting to be too much, and I realized if I didn’t get out of there, I’d be dead.”
In an effort to recover from his addiction, Schultz moved to Routt County and rented a home near Stagecoach State Park. In 1990, Schultz was arrested for driving under the influence, which he said made it more difficult for him to hold a job and maintain a stable living situation. Though Schultz quit cocaine, his cycle with alcohol repeated itself, he was arrested or cited for an alcohol-related offense, he maintained sobriety for short periods of time and then began drinking again.
Eventually, this cycle became so vicious that he was unable to maintain housing and began living on the streets. Throughout his time in Routt County, Schultz has had 61 criminal charges, 12 of which have resulted in incarceration, according to court records, but he said he interacts with the Steamboat Springs Police Department nearly every day.
“The cops here all know me,” he said. “Every single one of them knows me.”
The 1st line of mental health response
Steamboat Springs Police Department Officer Christian Barnett starts most shifts the same way. He puts on his police uniform and at either 6 a.m. or 6 p.m, he arrives at the Routt County Combined Law Enforcement Facility on Shield Drive to begin his 12-hour day.
What happens during the shift, Barnett said, can vary from assisting intoxicated tourists to breaking up loud parties to mediating roommate and family disputes, as well as responding to violent crime.
“Police officers are kind of the first line of contact for a lot of people,” Barnett said during a police ridealong with the Pilot & Today.
The police department is one of the only public safety entities in town working 24/7. Because of this, police are called to deal with all sorts of issues, many of which do not directly involve public safety concerns.
“In general, we encounter folks that are encountering some level of stress in their world,” Steamboat Springs Police Department Chief Cory Christensen said. “We end up getting called a lot of times where a friend, neighbor or relative says, ‘This individual is sending me messages that make me concerned for their safety and their welfare.’”
To deal with such cases appropriately, the department teamed up with Mind Springs Health and created a co-responder program to assist when officers are called to deal specifically with a mental health situation. Barnett said these calls vary but are often from people experiencing suicidal ideation, panic attacks or another mental health concern. The calls sometimes come from the person in crisis but, often, come from a family member or friend who lives out of town and is concerned about a loved one.
When officers receive such a call, they contact Mind Springs and a counselor accompanies them to the location of the person in crisis. The officer evaluates the situation for public safety, and if officers determine a situation is not immediately dangerous, the officer leaves and counselors are left to help a person through the crisis.
“The criminal justice system isn’t necessarily always the right answer,” Christensen said.
Because police may be the first line of access to treatment for many, Terri Hurst, policy coordinator with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said it is not uncommon for people struggling to call the police and confess to a crime so they can access services more quickly through the court system.
“That is wildly inappropriate,” Hurst said. “People are under the assumption that they think if they call the police and go through the criminal justice system that they can access services in a quicker way.”
A philosophy of policing
Ty Fire Thunder speaks softly. His voice cracks, and his hands shake as he talks about his pain and trauma. He has dark circles under his deep brown eyes, a result of sleeping outside every day and never getting more than a few hours of sleep each night.
He hangs his head low as he discusses pain from watching all seven of his siblings die from alcohol and drug-related issues.
The pain of losing his wife to a methamphetamine overdose and watching her take her last breath.
The pain of growing up a Native American man on a resource-drained reservation in South Dakota, where he said he frequently had racial slurs thrown at him.
The pain of remembering being raped as a child several times.
“I’m really struggling all of the time,” Fire Thunder said. “I have constant panic attacks.”
Fire Thunder has also been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which he said manifests as “constantly hearing voices telling me I’m not good enough.”
Fire Thunder grew up in South Dakota, then attended West Virginia University on a track and field scholarship. As a child, Fire Thunder’s family took occasional trips to Colorado, and after losing his wife, Fire Thunder felt he needed to escape South Dakota, so he packed up and moved to Steamboat.
“She was the love of my life and the only thing keeping me there,” Fire Thunder said. “I needed to get out.”
After arriving in Steamboat, Fire Thunder worked various service jobs, but his frequent panic attacks made it difficult to maintain them, and the medications he takes to mitigate the panic attacks and schizophrenia symptoms, Ativan and Seroquel, make it difficult for him to stay awake for long periods of time.
Because of this, Fire Thunder is homeless. While he can occasionally afford a few nights at a motel in Craig, he spends most of his nights sleeping outside or in empty buildings. He keeps his belongings in a storage unit and relies on Steamboat Springs Transit and his bicycle to get around town.
“A lot of the reason why I’m out here homeless is because of my mental stuff and the voices that I hear,” Fire Thunder said. “I try so hard to keep a job, but the panic attacks make it really hard.”
Most recently, Fire Thunder worked as a gas station clerk at ExxonMobil. While he enjoyed the job, Fire Thunder said he was fired after repeatedly not showing up to work, which he said was a result of his panic attacks.
While living in South Dakota, Fire Thunder said he was frequently mistreated by what he called “racist cops.”
“It was very cruel,” he said. “Being a Native man in South Dakota, people would harass me and try to hurt me in broad daylight and the cops would just watch and wouldn’t care.”
Fire Thunder’s experiences in Steamboat have been a stark contrast, he said.
“The police here in this town don’t mess with you unless you do something, and you’re a troublemaker,” Fire Thunder said. “They’re very friendly in this town, and they actually care and want to help you.”
Fire Thunder said he was arrested nearly 60 times in South Dakota, and while he frequently interacts with police officers in Steamboat, he has never been arrested and has only received minor citations for trespassing and other misdemeanors.
“They know I’m homeless, and they’re willing to work with me,” Fire Thunder said. “Being homeless, there’s a lot of time that you get really depressed, and you feel bad because you’re by yourself all the time.”
Though Steamboat has a small homeless community, officers interact with homeless people nearly every day. Most calls are related to trespassing or minor alcohol infractions. Christensen emphasized that while the department enforces laws, citing someone for repeated minor infractions may not ever stop the issue, and the department works to find other ways to build a safer community.
“It doesn’t always mean someone needs to be arrested or someone needs a ticket, but at the end of the day, it’s our job to find a pathway to a safer community,” Christensen said.
Christensen said treating people with compassion is one of the department’s core values.
“When you’re dealing with someone who’s experiencing a mental health issue, coming from a place of compassion helps you hopefully understand a little bit and also be more patient and seek opportunities for success,” Christensen said. “The officers are really just trying to find a solution for the individual so the individual is safe.”
The ultimate goal for police officers, Christensen said, is to ensure the community is safe, and that often involves resources rather than tickets and arrests.
“There are many different ways for first responders to help the community be safer,” Christensen said.
Incarcerating the mentally ill
Schultz believes there’s a reason he’s sat in jail 12 times; he said he doesn’t think the criminal justice system has adequately addressed his addiction and mental health issues.
“I’m a drinker, and I’ll be the first to admit it,” he said. “It’s what I like to do. It’s who I am. Sitting in a cell ain’t gonna change that.”
Steamboat Springs Police Department Sgt. Rich Brown said Schultz’ situation is familiar to the department.
“I think people come here for the beauty and the outdoors and the activities, but when it comes down to it, it’s still very challenging to make a living and stay afloat and survive, especially for a lot of the younger people working seasonal jobs,” Brown said. “We see a lot of people who come here for those reasons, but if you don’t have a support net, it can create huge challenges with depression and anxiety.”
Adam Mayo, a Steamboat-based defense attorney that practices throughout Northwest Colorado, said many of his clients with mental health issues are in a similar situation. Oftentimes, Mayo said, recent high school or college graduates move to town with no support system, start experiencing anxiety and depression and commit a small crime that lands them in the court system. Most small crimes, Mayo said, involve alcohol.
“A lot of my clients temporarily lose their reason, act foolish and wind up with either minor or serious charges that relate to them being unable to cope with the situation they’re going through,” Mayo said. “This happens especially with young people who are here and away from their families and maybe don’t have a good support network.”
While Brown said most people who officers interact with do not end up in jail or homeless, many fall deep into their addiction and struggle to break it, cycling through the justice system over and again without having their underlying needs addressed.
“I think a lot of people go out and party and enjoy a lot of fun things, but over time, it kind of drains people,” Brown said. “You can’t continue to do that for years and years and not struggle with making ends meet.”
Kris Hammond, a longtime Steamboat defense attorney with Klauzer & Tremaine Law, said the overwhelming majority of his clients experiencing mental health issues also suffer from drug and alcohol addictions. Once those clients have been arrested and enter the court system, their problems often intensify, he said.
“I think that’s a problem throughout the criminal court system all over the world,” Hammond said. “People shouldn’t be punished because they’re mentally ill.”
Too often, Hammond said, low-level offenders end up cycling through the criminal justice system without actually solving the roots of the issue that landed them in the system in the first place. Much of this, he said, is due to financial barriers many people in rural areas face.
“If my clients have mental health problems, they can afford to pay for treatment,” Hammond said. “Not everyone can do that.”
Hammond also said he believes the state Legislature has not adequately invested in resources for people with mental health issues in the court system. Colorado has only two state mental hospitals, one in Pueblo and one in Denver. Both are hours away from Routt County, are often full and are difficult to access in the winter when roads are closed or too dangerous to drive. Because of this, Hammond said, those experiencing mental health crises often end up in jail because there are few other options.
“People often end up going from one institution to another, which is usually jail, because the government doesn’t know what to do with them,” Hammond said. “Instead of being in a mental hospital, they’re in jail.”
Data from the Colorado Department of Corrections support Hammond’s thesis, with 73.2% of men and 78.5% of women who are incarcerated experiencing moderate to severe mental health needs.
“People with mental health needs don’t belong in jails, especially if they’re being incarcerated just due to their mental illness,” Hurst said. “We, as a state, have invested in prisons and jails and emergency rooms, and that’s what we have funded. We have not truly invested in any civil mental health beds in our state.”
Who gets access to services?
Sheryl Uhlmann has a long list of clients across Colorado’s 14th Judicial District, which covers Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, and she often sees repeat clients.
Uhlmann, who heads up the district’s public defender’s office, said most of her clients come in with at least one mental health condition. It’s also common to see clients with co-occuring conditions, such as substance abuse disorder, anxiety and depression, Uhlmann said.
“If you have mental illness with a substance use disorder, the likelihood that you’re going to be in the criminal justice system is much greater,” Uhlmann said. “A lot of people with substance abuse issues are also mentally ill, and they use substances to cope with the mental illness.”
As a public defender covering three counties, Uhlmann works with lower-income clients who often cannot afford therapy or other services that more affluent residents can.
“These services aren’t accessible,” Uhlmann said. “They can’t access the services that someone who’s wealthier might be able to access.”
Cycling through the courts
Routt County Court Judge James Garrecht knows most defendants who stand in front of him are experiencing some form of mental health issue. Those issues vary greatly in severity and can include anything from substance addiction, anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
These issues can be difficult to parse out, Garrecht said, as defendants in the court could be there for issues ranging from minor drug infractions to domestic violence or other violent crimes.
“From a court perspective, when at all possible, we try to get them directed in an area that will hopefully get them help in handling their issues and keeping them out of the court system,” Garrecht said. “Sometimes, I think these people really don’t belong in the criminal justice system, but where do they go?”
While Colorado’s recidivism rates have decreased over the past five years, its rates are still high among people with mental illnesses. In 2016, the statewide recidivism rate among those who said they had a mental illness was 47%.
“That’s really backwards, and it’s heartbreaking,” Hurst said.
Routt County’s recidivism rate is difficult to pinpoint because the court system does not track district-wide information and only tracks certain behavior health diagnoses, said Jon Sarche, Colorado courts spokesperson.
“The data is really limited and is not an all-encompassing tracking system for behavioral health issues,” Sarche said.
Fourteenth Judicial District Attorney Matt Karzen said much of the state’s high recidivism rate is due to the way the criminal justice system is set up — focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation.
“The criminal justice system is not primarily designed to address mental illness,” Karzen said. “The resources in the criminal justice system are heavily weighted towards punitive-and-control-focused supervision as opposed to treatment-focused intervention.”
Garrecht said the lack of resources for those with mental health issues is primarily due to a lack of funding from the state legislature.
“People with mental health issues don’t have lobbyists advocating for them,” Garrecht said.
Karzen echoed Garrecht’s concerns and said much of the reasoning behind a lack of funding is because the state has not made mental health in the justice system a priority. Defendants are often “hidden and easy to ignore,” Karzen said.
“As a society, communities have to decide how they want their resources expended on these issues,” Karzen said. “Having the resources to do it correctly is the key.”
Karzen also said difficulties within the court system, particularly financial burdens exacerbated by court-ordered fines, can add stress to a defendant’s plate and have further impacts on their mental health.
“Situational depression and anxiety can play a huge part,” Karzen said.
While experts agreed courts and jails are often not the appropriate place for those with mental health issues, the 14th District has implemented a series of programs for such defendants, ranging from education and classes to help navigating the system for people who are found incompetent to do so by a judge.
In 2018, the district was awarded state funding to create a program called Bridges, which helps connect individuals in the court system with services early on in the process. The program serves participants who are involved in the criminal justice system and who are living with mental health conditions. A Bridges program court liaison can assess needs and help connect participants to resources during the pre-trial phase of their case, thereby enabling participants to receive support and case management much sooner than they otherwise might receive help. A judge has to recommend a defendant for the program, then the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health completes an evaluation to determine whether the defendant is eligible.
Breanon Cole, court liaison for the program, said the main goal is to help defendants before they have been sentenced, as navigating the court system can exacerbate preexisting mental health issues. If a defendant is placed on probation, they are often required to take classes or complete therapy, but there are little resources for those going through the court process who have not yet been sentenced.
“As soon as the court is aware someone may be having a mental health challenge, we want to get connected sooner rather than later,” Cole said. “There is a lot of stress involved with being involved in a criminal case.”
Bridges liaisons are not certified mental health professionals and are employees of the court, but they work to connect defendants with mental health providers, transportation, housing and job services, as well as help defendants interact with attorneys and judges. The program is also voluntary, and any communication between liaisons and defendants is confidential and does not impact someone’s criminal case.
By doing this, Cole said, the program aims to address some of the issues that land people in the criminal justice system in the first place: poverty, mental illness, housing insecurity and lack of community support.
“This program is a really great example of the criminal justice system trying to get it right,” Cole said. “We’re able to sometimes mitigate some really hard problems and get people connected to resources before things deteriorate.”
Cole said one of the largest issues facing defendants and inmates is a lack of housing, which is already prevalent in rural communities and even more pronounced in Routt County, where housing is often unaffordable and difficult to come by.
“We’re trying to engage people who are struggling a lot,” Cole said. “It’s often more complicated than people realize.”
After sentencing, defendants are often required to take classes or complete therapy, but court experts said those programs vary in efficacy and are not individualized to meet a person’s specific needs. Garrecht said whether or not a person connects with their therapist, and other group therapy members can make a difference on whether or not someone benefits from programs.
“You could make people go through education classes time after time, but until you address the underlying mental health issues, they probably won’t do you any good,” Garrecht said.
Rehabilitation in the jails
Lt. Joseph Boyle, Routt County Jail administrator, has one main goal while inmates are behind bars: get them the help they need to prevent them from coming back.
When inmates leave the jail, they’re given a bag with gloves, socks, hygiene products, a folder with mental health resources and a can of Narcan, a lifesaving nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose.
“The more tools I can offer for people in here, the better chances of them succeeding on the outside,” Boyle said.
Most inmates are entering jail with substance use, trauma or other mental health issues, Boyle said. While jails in urban areas usually have greater access to mental health services for inmates, jails in rural areas often do not have such resources, he added.
In 2018, the Routt County Jail was awarded a grant from the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health to create programs for inmates with mental health struggles. As part of the program, inmates are asked about drug and alcohol usage, traumatic events, suicidal ideation and other mental health issues when they are booked into jail. The information is confidential and does not go into an inmate’s criminal file. Jail staff then work with Craig Thornhill, a licensed professional counselor for substance use counseling; with the Front Range Clinic for assisted treatment; and Mind Springs Health for one-on-one therapy.
Once the assessment is completed, inmates visit with the jail’s part-time nurse, and based on their score, the nurse connects inmates with various services. Inmates are also offered access to Alcoholics Anonymous, General Education Development courses, college courses and weekly meditation. Once they get close to their release dates, inmates are able to apply for jobs and are eligible to be let out early for good behavior when applicable.
“Mental health is a big topic, and I feel like here, at least in the jail, I want to give as much support to people as I can to set them up for when they leave,” Boyle said.
Boyle said it can be easy for people to ignore mental health issues and dismiss those who end up in the criminal justice system as degenerates, but he sees the jail as a representation of society as a whole.
“If it’s happening in our jails, it’s happening in our communities, because our jails are a reflection of our community,” Boyle said. “It’s unfortunate that we do see this, but history has shown us that people who get involved with the criminal justice system usually have some sort of mental health issue to some degree.”
While most coming into the jail may already have a mental health issue, Hurst said jails can also amplify the issue or add new ones. Being cut off from family and friends and the general stress of being in the jail can all negatively impact a person, Hurst said.
“Being in that sort of confined environment just exacerbates someone’s mental illness,” Hurst said. “It just compounds the issue.”
For Schultz, being stuck inside behind bars made him want to drink more each time he got out of jail.
“F— no, it didn’t help me,” Schultz said. “I’m still living like this.”
Still, Boyle said he and jail staff do everything they can to reduce recidivism rates and help inmates get back on their feet without returning to jail.
Before inmates are released, they meet with staff from the Routt County Department of Human Services and The Health Partnership to discuss needs they may have for life after incarceration, including housing, food, a job, health insurance or child care. Staff do their best to connect inmates with resources before they leave jail.
“A lot of people that come through our doors have a troubling past and have been abused in some way,” Boyle said. “We want to help them through that.”
Pushing societal problems to the criminal justice system
While they shared varying opinions on how to solve the problem, all experts interviewed agreed on one point: Police, prosecutors, judges and jails have been tasked with handling issues they may not be equipped to handle, particularly mental health issues.
“It’s a community effort,” Boyle said. “I can only do so much within the jail to help people.”
Though the jail has received funding to support additional mental health resources, Boyle said Routt County is part of a larger problem of rural jails having fewer resources and being expected to deal with more problems.
“Jails, ultimately, are becoming more places where people with mental health issues end up coming,” Boyle said. “We’re trying to navigate that and find the best way forward to handle that.”
As the U.S. had a nationwide reckoning with the criminal justice system in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, Routt County had its own reckoning and discussions about police reform. The Steamboat police department implemented its co-responder program, which had been in the works for a while. But it was further ignited by the year’s conversations around criminal justice, Christensen said.
“Law enforcement has, for many years, been trying to get out of the mental health business, and conversations last summer helped us find ways to make our law enforcement response better,” Christensen said.
Karzen said while he is in favor of many facets of criminal justice reform, he still believes there are dangerous members of society who are safer in jail than they are on the streets.
“We’re deluding ourselves if we want to say that crime doesn’t exist or that no one ever needs to be physically isolated from other human beings,” Karzen said. “In modern society, you’re going to have bad people hurting others.”
Still, Karzen emphasized that punishment without rehabilitation and without addressing underlying causes of crime will never solve the problem.
“If you just incarcerate someone, and they’re not provided any avenue to restore their health, you’re only temporarily making the community safer,” Karzen said. “It’s about balancing public safety and human decency and helping each other.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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