by BILLY YANG
In the United States, we like to think we’re number one in everything we do. There’s one top ranking, however, that the land of the free should not be so proud of: The U.S. incarcerates the most people in world.
More than Russia, more than China — the U.S. has about 2.2 million people in prisons and jails today, according to the U.S Department of Justice.
The majority of people now held in those prisons fall into three groups, which include minorities, the poor and the mentally ill, said Salt Lake County District Attorney, Sim Gill.
Gill, who served as a prosecutor for Salt Lake City for 16 years before he was elected as Salt Lake County District Attorney in 2010, has largely focused on helping to relieve the legal system of the burden of being the largest mental health institution in the U.S.
“The largest, number one, mental health facility in America is the L.A. County Jail,” Gill said. “By default, we have made our jails and prisons the mental health warehouses of our community.”
As a proponent of alternatives to incarceration, and not being content with the status quo, Gill introduced the idea of Mental Health Court to Salt Lake City 10 years ago. There were only eight other similar programs in the country at the time.
“We [prosecutors and police] are here to solve problems, not just simply process and warehouse people,” Gill said.
The chronically homeless and people who are considered a public nuisance generally have some form of mental illness, Gill said. Because they come from lower economic backgrounds, they typically cannot afford medications to help them function in society.
“Drugs are a poor man’s form of self-medication,” Gill said.
The vicious cycle begins when the mentally ill turn to illicit drugs to alleviate symptoms of their disease, such as hearing voices in their heads. They take drugs, cause problems, get arrested and get released from jail, only to head back to square one.
“I know very few mentally ill people who wake up in the morning and say ‘let me see how many crimes I can go out and commit,’ ” Gill said. “Often, the criminal activity is a consequence of their mental illness.”
Gill’s model for Mental Health Court is part of what he calls therapeutic justice. Mental Health Court operates within Utah’s Third Judicial District and is an alternative to jail time for people with mental disorders who have been picked up by law enforcement. The program is completely voluntary, and seeks to provide participants with the help they need.
Mental Health Court targets people who have been charged with misdemeanors and felonies and have been identified with axis one disorders – such as schizophrenia, schizo-effective and bipolar disorders, conditions that can be treated with medication.
People who take part in this program have to maintain weekly contact with their assigned caseworker. This is to help ensure the participant is properly taking medication as prescribed.
“The number one reason why someone who’s mentally ill stops taking their medication… because they start feeling good,” Gill said.
By Gill’s own account, Mental Health Court has been a success. Gill uses the recidivism rate as a measure. Before the program was instituted, the recidivism rate for offenders with mental illness was 68 percent. After Mental Health Court took hold in Salt Lake County, that number dropped to 19 percent.
Another inequity Gill started to examine while he was a Salt Lake City prosecutor is the disproportionate number of minorities in prisons and jails.
Gill, the first Indian-born person to be elected a district attorney in the U.S., served on the Salt Lake Committee on Racial Justice when he was the city’s public prosecutor.
The committee conducted an audit of the prosecutor office as it related to its treatment of minorities. The panel did not find any statistical proof that minorities were unfairly prosecuted. But the audit revealed certain ethnic groups had an arrest rate five times higher than others.
Gill believes such evaluations of governmental agencies are important and sees them as ways to ensure justice is properly served. He also believes audits help identify areas for improvement.