Mental health court offers refuge for repeat offenders

by BLAKELY BOWERS

Watching as law enforcement officials beat a near elderly man, as ordered by the prosecutor, a young boy was impacted forever.  Eight year-old Sim Gill, growing up in his native India, could not shake the image from his mind. He later found out the man had been wrongly accused of theft.

The childhood experience continues to inspire Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, as he works to restore justice on a day-by-day basis. Gill stands behind his mission statement to be firm and fair, swift and sure of holding offenders accountable for their criminal conduct.

In the United States,  more people are jailed than in any other country. The number of ethnic minorities in prison tops the list. U.S. incarceration rates are growing at a staggering rate. According to Gill, from 1970 to 2011, the numbers of jail and prison inmates grew from 700,000 to 2.2 million.

“We need a new approach,” Gill said. “We are locking up people we dislike, not just the people we are afraid of.”  The jailing of so many people has major impacts on all aspects of life in the United States, he said. The numbers affect society, especially in rising costs to the taxpayer.

What “new approach” could possibly work?  Gill believes it all begins with reforming mental health aid and with offering help to the chronically mentally ill. In order for a new approach to be funded and to work credibly, it needs to be safe for all involved, just and it must make fiscal sense.

More than one-fourth of people in jail suffer from mental illness, Gill said, explaining how the cycle of jail time typically works for the mentally ill: They serve time for crimes such as public intoxication and trespassing, then get released back to the streets and commit the same crimes again.

This is where Gill’s ultimate passion comes into play: Mental health court.  Those who have been charged with a crime and have mental disorders have the opportunity to voluntarily attend the program, within Utah’s Third District Court. Excluding sex offenders, active DUI cases, and excessively violent people, the court’s purpose is to closely supervise mentally ill defendants for 12 to 36 months.

“This is the fair break, the one opportunity given to these individuals who crave dignity of being treated as a human being.” Gill said.

Scott Mathis, a graduate of mental health court, attributes all of his success and confidence to the program. “I was lost, lost and confused. I was without any options and down deep into a dark hole without sight of any change. This program is the reason I am healthy today,” Mathis said. Because mental health court is voluntary, the individuals attending have consciously chosen to be there. The program’s volunteer nature has real impact on a participant’s attitude and commitment. The focus is not simply on punishment, but on treatment.

On its face, the program may seem to be letting criminals off easily. But mental health court‘s long-term recovery goal requires a solid commitment from those who participate. They are required to attend all meetings, get tested for drugs, evaluations and report to their assigned officer. “The program is not easy, that’s all I have to say,” Mathis said with an honest smirk. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but without a doubt, the best thing, too.”

Mathis now holds a full-time job in Salt Lake City, participates in speaking groups and serves as an active advocate for the program that turned his life around forever. “ I had been in and out of jail for numerous reasons, nothing ever changed. If not for the program I would be in jail, with fines up my ass, without any job options, and most critical, my three year-old son would not have a father in his life,” Mathis said.

Mathis has now been sober for almost two years, and has custody of his son.

“The mental health court program has potential to lift up our communities in countless ways. My life would not be the same without it, period.”