Resource support

Boulder County to see behavioral health support for criminal justice defenders

Governor Jared Polis signed into law Senate Bill 188 on May 20, creating a behavioral health program for prosecutors and defense attorneys.

This bill allocates $500,000 to the grant program. Recipients can use the money for counseling services and peer support programs, as well as training and education programs that teach the symptoms of work-related trauma and how to prevent and treat it.

Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who has been a prosecutor for 25 years, knows firsthand how staff can be affected by their work. District Attorney staff can be affected by repeated exposure to the trauma of others, including impacts resulting from visiting crime scenes, participating in autopsies, viewing videos and photos of violent crimes and child pornography, and encounters with victims of horrific crimes, he said. .

“I’ve seen the prosecution community become more aware of the impact this has on individuals,” Dougherty said.

The office managed to organize temporary programs from 2018 to support staff welfare; however, this bill will provide funding to make these programs more permanent.

In 2020, the Boulder District Attorney’s Office joined the inaugural cohort of Colorado’s Wellness Recognition Program for Legal Employers, sponsored by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Past programs have included guest speakers and advice.

The DA’s office already has these systems in place, so it will begin applying for this permanent funding as soon as possible in order to make services and support a permanent part of the office, Dougherty said.

Elaina Shively, who is a prosecutor with the Boulder district attorney’s office and helps implement their wellness programs, added that this funding will be much more sustainable.

“We had to gather resources before,” she said.

Shively herself took advantage of these resources during a case that deeply affected her own well-being. “It was so important that people working in the system could access treatment quickly, confidentially and without financial burden,” she said.

The bill allocates $250,000 to the Colorado state public defender’s office and $250,000 to the Colorado district attorney’s board, which then distributes the money to individual offices. An office can apply for funding by demonstrating that it will use the money for an appropriate cause.

Dougherty added that all staff will benefit from this funding, including paralegals, investigators, attorneys and victim advocates.

This bill will protect staff from the long-term impacts of the job, he said. It is important to the community as a whole that criminal justice advocates stay healthy so that they are able to make the best decisions possible.

“I recognize the responsibility the community has given us,” Dougherty said.

The bill makes funds available to public defenders, but not to defense lawyers in private practice. The Boulder County Public Defender’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on the legislation.

Ideally, this bill will help retain employees. Lawyers in general are very stressed, Shively said. “We have to make sure they don’t bring trauma home,” she said.

Shively hopes that with this additional funding, wellness resources will also be able to operate in a preventative way.

“I hope it helps reduce the stigma and build the resilience needed for work like this,” she said.