Denver, CO

Denver mayor may expand jail behavioral health services

David Heitz

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston is working on a plan that would expand mental health and substance abuse treatment in the city’s jails.

Johnston said during the budget hearing Thursday for the Denver Sheriff’s Department that he is in preliminary discussions with the sheriff’s department, non-profits and mental health service providers to create such a program.

At the same budget hearing, Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins said his department may be expanding the duties of deputies. The 2024 budget also calls for a $2.5 million increase to Denver Health to continue providing addiction and mental health services in the jail.

Parady peppers mayor, sheriff with questions

Council member Sarah Parady asked Diggins and Johnston the questions that led to their admission of the jail plan. She wanted to know if people who otherwise could receive substance abuse or mental health treatment outside of jail would be going to jail under the mayor’s new plan.

“I will ask the mayor for a little bit of assistance in answering this question,” Diggins responded. “We have had preliminary conversations relative to what we’re going to do to meet the mayor’s goal and his vision of expanding services offered.”

Johnston said the services would be offered to “people sent to jail for existing crimes that would be better served by having access to treatment rather than not.” The mayor said the goal always is to provide treatment outside of the jail setting. But he said he anticipates an influx in the coming months of inmates that will need substance abuse and/or mental health treatment.

The fewer the prisoners the better, Parady says

Parady lauded Diggins for getting the inmate population down to about 1,700, which she considers a positive indicator for a community. She told Johnston she hoped his plan would not reverse years of progress “under the guise of treatment.”

Johnston said the recidivism rate among people with mental health and substance abuse challenges is very high. He said the goal would be to better stabilize people in jail for better success once they get out. “If we don’t have a service handoff coming out (of jail) the risks are very high.”

Parady asked the mayor whether he budgeted any money for his plan, which she said she heard involves turning unused jail pods into treatment facilities. “It’s a plan I’ve heard floating around,” she said.

The mayor said there is no line item for the plan because it has not been designed yet.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

Denver, CO

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