Denver Launches Specialty Courts to Address Addiction
DA Beth McCann says programs are designed to guide defendants toward treatment

by Jessica Folker

Two new specialty courts are debuting in Denver this month, both with the aim of steering people struggling with drugs and addiction out of the criminal justice system.

One court, opening this week, will serve those charged with misdemeanor drug possession and focus on harm reduction, rather than punishment. A second court, expected to begin in mid-March, will handle cases involving people charged with more serious felonies but whose criminal behavior appears to be motivated by drug addiction.

“This was a high-need area, be- cause I do believe that we can do a better job in the system with people that have drug addiction and alcoholism,” said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, whose office has been coordinating with the courts, police department, public defenders, judges, probation officers and others to establish the new programs.

“It’s really an effort to [do a] couple things: One is to reduce the number of people in the criminal justice system. And secondly, it’s really to look at this more as a public health issue,” McCann said.


The misdemeanor drug court, dubbed the HEM Court, will begin hearing cases this week. While the letters are meant to represent “helping,” “engaging” and “motivating,” the court was originally named to bear the initials of Assistant District Attorney Helen Morgan who, McCann said, “has been instrumental in pushing this agenda forward and organizing the stakeholders and really getting this new way of thinking underway in our Denver County Court.”

The program was made possible by a state law passed last year making possession of less than four grams of most drugs a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. The law goes into effect March 1.

To read this and other complete articles featured in the March 2, 2020 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.