by Todd Patton
As a young boy in India, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill developed a metaphorical theory from a real life experience.
Gill, 52, spoke in a faint Indian accent of a formative moment from his youth, to a classroom of 13 students recently at the University of Utah. At the age of “eight or nine” in his native India, Gill said, he witnessed the brutal beating of a man accused of stealing jewelry from a neighbor’s home, and in the end, the beating of an innocent man.
“That left a very strong impression on me,” Gill said, “that when you have that authority, when you have that power, when you have that capacity to alter and impact people’s lives, you have to really use that with a great level of deference and responsibility.”
Gill immigrated soon after that with his family to the United States. Years later, Gill studied history and philosophy at the University of Utah and as a young prosecutor, this memory would influence his practices. Gill’s background in philosophy was the obvious reasoning behind his principles as a liberal prosecutor, pronounced when he wrote the term “Restorative Justice” on the classroom whiteboard. That phrase, he explained, helps to explain his approach to addressing certain chronic crimes in Salt Lake County.
Since Gill took office in 2011, initiatives such as drug and mental health court are examples of how helping a troubled person is a much better option than simply incarcerating him.
Rehabilitation courts, Gill said, are one solution to limited resources. Having a “zero tolerance” policy is one thing many citizens want, but Gill described that model as “doomed to failure.” Writing on the whiteboard, again, Gill emphasized that a “zero tolerance” model would require unlimited resources, a limited number of cases and unlimited time.
Advocates for rehabilitation not only come in the form of Sim Gill, but organizations and individuals who have first-hand knowledge of addiction.
Volunteers of America (VOA) is a non-profit organization in Salt Lake City that deals with the homeless, directly on the street. And former VOA employee, Kyle Patton, has similar sentiments towards Gill’s approach as a district attorney.
“It’s important to have those types of resources for the homeless. I think drug and mental health court help to put their [homeless population] behavior into context,” Patton said. “People get all up in arms about institutionalizing the mentally ill. But I think resources like these courts are one of the solutions to that problem.”
In late February, a rally at the Utah State Capitol was held for those, who like Gill and Patton, champion the issue of rehabilitation. “Drug Court Works. Ask Us how,” one homemade sign read. Held by a woman among the hundreds of people who had gathered to implore Utah legislators for more funding.
“Hope=funding,” was another common sign at the rally, as recovering addicts and public officials spoke to echoed cheers.
“Not everybody needs treatment, but we all need an opportunity to have it,” said one recovering addict named Shannon. “Your story matters, so find your representative and tell them why recovery is so vital for our future. We can all work together to change the system.”
Gill’s ultimate mission is to help those who can no longer help themselves. And in the United States, the prison population is made up of 17 to 21 percent of mentally ill inmates, Gill said. This statistic that is the driving force behind rehabilitation courts for those afflicted with substance abuse and the mentally ill who no longer have support.
Utilizing these initiatives is completely voluntary, but those in dire situations can no longer say they didn’t get a break,” Gill said. “Restorative justice” ultimately presents a solution, instead of simply viewing those who lack support for their issues, as a problem. Organizations like VOA and rallies at the Capitol can help present opportunities to those in need of help, but Gill has actual power to change the way things work.
Those two hours that Gill spoke about his beliefs, he didn’t have to convince the students to vote for him, or find a way to get funding for a project.
It was just simply two hours of Sim Gill being exactly who he is.