by JAVAN RIVERA
Taking action to solve Utah’s homeless problem could save Salt Lake City taxpayers thousands of dollars.
Homeless men and women wander the streets of downtown Salt Lake City every day. Many avoid the homeless, brush off their panhandling and go about their daily business. They never stop to think about how these people ended up in their current situation, much less how the growing problem of the mentally ill homeless population might cost far more in taxes than a handful of quarters to a panhandler ever will.
Since 2001, the Salt Lake County mental health court has been helping to reduce the rate of criminal recidivism among Salt Lake City’s mentally ill. Through a system of what Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill likes to call “restorative justice,” the mental health court has reduced repeat offenses through weekly court dates and proper medication. This therapeutic take on justice is what Gill believes will not only help with Salt Lake City’s homeless criminal offense problem, but also save taxpayers a lot of money.
“We are bankrupting ourselves into oblivion,” Gill said of the current system of “zero tolerance” enacted by most of U.S. law and justice systems. “We need to seek out alternatives to incarceration; we need to focus on therapeutic justice, and we need to focus on locking up those we are afraid of, not those who we don’t like.”
Salt Lake County’s mental health court works on what Gill calls a “system approach,” something he thinks of as simple problem-solving. He believes that all too often, the legal system relies on “crisis management” rather than proactively preventing repeat offenses by taking active measures right away. This is the core of mental health court.
“The neat thing about the people we serve in mental health court is that simple medication is often enough to reduce recidivism,” said Jeannie Edens, supervisor of the Day Reporting Center of Criminal Justice Services (DRC).
Edens’ work at DRC allows her to see the benefits of mental health court both for the participants who are sent to the program as well as the taxpayers whose money is being put to more efficient use. She feels that the work being done at DRC is important to a fair judicial system.
DRC provides an alternative to jail time by allowing criminals to participate in intensive case management that includes treatment, educational and employment opportunities to prevent criminal recidivism. DRC works regularly with Salt Lake County’s mental health court.
“In a regular court setting a judge may not know that a person has mental health problems,” Edens said. “They think it’s just another substance abuse problem and could sentence them to longer and harsher punishments.”
It’s those longer sentences that usually end up costing Utah taxpayers. According to Gill, conservatively, the average cost of detaining, treating and processing a mentally ill criminal offender is often in the range of thousands of dollars. That includes the cost of police dispatch, ambulance, medical treatment, court processing, and jail time—all of which, Gill said, is coming out of the taxpayer’s wallet.
“So it’s not just a good progressive idea that I’m talking about,” Gill said. “It’s become a fiscal reality as well.”
For Gill, however, mental health court provides more than just an opportunity to reduce repeat offenses and increase fiscal efficiency in Salt Lake County’s criminal justice system. It also allows the criminal justice system to treat these mentally ill offenders in a manner that denotes respect and dignity, despite their current situation.
“The worst thing you can do to a person is make them insignificant, to disrespect them,” Gill said. “This program [mental health court] respects them.”
It’s that respect that Gill believes has helped to bring about the success of mental health court in Salt Lake County. Through the program, officials have seen a decrease of recidivism from 68 percent to between 17 to 19 percent among participants, Gill said. Additionally, the number of “event failures,” the amount of time between significant lapses of criminal behavior, have increased from an average of 230 days to more than 1,300 days.
“Is this a perfect model? Absolutely not,” Gill said. “Is it a better one? Damn straight.”