Mentally ill find refuge and help at mental health court

by TRICIA OLIPHANT

About 45 people assembled inside a Third District Courtroom in the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City and waited to talk to the judge.

An elderly man, who wore a brown, baggy suit coat that hung awkwardly on his small body, kindly greeted some old friends and then sat quietly among the audience.  He stared at his hands folded tightly in his lap and waited for his name to be read.

A woman, who appeared to be about 25, wore bright, tight-fitting clothing and tall stiletto heels.  Several pairs of large, flashy earrings adorned her ears.  Before sitting down, she chatted with friends, laughing and sharing jokes.

The court bailiff stood at the front of the room and read a list of names. Those who heard their names left their seats and stepped forward.

One-by-one, each stood at the podium and spoke with Third District Court Judge Judith Atherton about the events of the past week.

Welcome to Salt Lake County’s mental health court. The defendants here will not be sentenced to hard time in jail, so long as they commit to certain rules of behavior and take their medication.

The Salt Lake County Mental Health Court was founded more than 10 years ago.

“One of our main purposes here at mental health court [is] to get people to a point that they can maintain for the rest of their lives,” said Atherton, at mental health court earlier this year.

The mental health court program is voluntary. Participants commit to participate for 12 to 36 months.

Those participating stand before Atherton every week as she reviews the weekly report submitted by the participant’s caseworker.

In addition, participants agree to take all medications as prescribed and to obey all laws and other regulations.  Participants have contact throughout the week with their caseworkers to ensure compliance with these regulations.

If participants come to court and are off their medications, Atherton will order them to jail to be stabilized.

“The first thing we’re concerned about, Derek, is your welfare,” said Atherton to a mental health court participant.

The number one reason for mentally ill people to stop taking their medications is that they feel well and no longer believe they need medication, said Salt Lake County District Attorney, Sim Gill, who has made mental health court one of his top social justice priorities.  That is one of the reasons for frequent court appearances.

“Thank you for helping me. Thank you,” said Justin, who graduated from mental health court on Monday. “Everyone in here can do this.”

All who were present, including Atherton, applauded and congratulated the recent graduate.

Those eligible to participate in the mental health court have committed a misdemeanor or a felony, have an Axis one disorder (which means that their disorder can be treated with medical support), and must be legally competent.

Mental health court excludes the participation of sex offenders, those with open-active DUI cases, and the “excessively violent.”
“Is this a perfect model? Absolutely not. Is it a better model? [Darn] straight,” Gill said.

Gill said that the United States once had mental health institutions.  However, the institutions were abused and were therefore demolished by the Reagan Administration during the 1980s.

“By default, we have made jails and prisons [the] mental health institutions of our country,” Gill said. The Los Angeles County Jail,  he said, is the largest mental health facility in the United States.

Gill added that criminal activity is often a result of mental illness.

And, after mentally ill people are released from jail or prison, they often repeat the same crimes or commit new crimes because of their untreated illnesses.

The U.S. leads the world in jailing the most people, followed by China, Russia, and Cuba.

This excess in jailing U.S. citizens uses tax dollars and resources.

Gill said that the solution to this is something he calls “smart prosecution.” This includes alternatives to incarceration, therapeutic justice and locking up only those who genuinely breed fear in society, as opposed to those we simply do not like.

Mental health court is a form of smart prosecution and was created under the “systems,” or problem solving, approach.

“We lowered cost but increased care [with this model],” Gill said.