In Salt Lake County, a better option for justice

by MCKENZIE DEAN

Since its creation in July 2001, mental health court in Salt Lake County is booming with results– helping not only individuals but the community, as well.

Two to five percent of people in the world deal with some sort of mental illness. Out of that percentage, 17 to 21 percent of inmates in United States jails are mentally ill.

“We do not think prison rehabilitates the person who is struggling,” said Tammi Odegard, Pahrump, Nev., Specialty Court Coordinator.

About 400 miles north of Pahrump, Salt Lake City is also addressing similar issues of treating the chronically mentally ill in the court system.

Mental health court is a combination of criminal justice and mental health agencies. An adult and juvenile mental health court has been established in the Utah courts for many counties. It provides services for treatment and case management, along with community supervision. The program’s goal is to leave each patient with improved mental health and personal well-being.

In addition, mental health court reduces recidivism and improves public safety, Odegard said. The goal is to decrease clients’ contact with the criminal justice system by providing different courts with resources that will improve the social function of the clients. Along with treatment and support, mental health courts link their clients with housing and employment opportunities, as well.

“These types of courts provide immense amounts of advantages to help the client, especially, dealing with their cases. It provides additional incentives for them to do well and prove themselves to the judge that will be their final sentence,” Odgeard said.

Graduating from a type of program like mental health or drug court also helps in a large aspect with other agencies in the judicial system, such as family court and with challenges of child custody. The program requires those who participate to demonstrate responsibility and a desire to change their ways. Officials in Salt Lake County have similar feelings on the issue.

“We need to be smart prosecutors, not zero tolerance,” said Sim Gill, Salt Lake County District Attorney, who has supported mental health and drug courts throughout his career as a prosecutor.

Gill points out that that before the implementation of mental health court in Third District Court in Salt Lake City, the commission of new crimes by the mentally ill hovered at 68 percent. Mental health court has helped decrease that number by 17 to 19 percent.

By keeping the chronically mentally ill from returning to jail time and again, society is saving money on public resources, too, Gill said.

Every 230 days an “event failure” occurs. Gill spoke of an event failure as a criminal who repeats another crime. Results have shown that after one goes through the mental health court, the number of days that a mentally ill person re-offended had increased to 1,300.

Although mental health court is voluntary and requires a long-term commitment — one year on average —  Gill and other proponents believe the program’s benefits far outweigh its costs.

In Third District mental health court, 51 to 100 participants enter the program each year. The court accepts participants who have been diagnosed with Axis I disorders- mental illnesses that are persistent or serious and require medications. Upon completion of the program, participants’ are likely to be reduced or entirely dismissed.

In the process of implementing mental health court in Utah, access to mental health resources has greatly increased. Gill said a vast number of people lack the access to get help, leading to the continuation of repetitive crimes and a resulting burden on the courts. Mental health court has helped to change that.

“We need to take care of their addiction, not just lock them up,” Gill said.

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