Utah’s mental health court addresses repeat offender problems

by JASON NOWA

Sim Gill believes that jail is for people who have murdered, raped, or who have harmed children. Jail is not a place for the mentally ill. He is in the process of trying to accomplish this.

Gill, who is the Salt Lake County District Attorney, recently spoke to small group of University of Utah students about his job and the passions that drive him. Gill spoke about various processes,  from how he deals with the death penalty, drug abuse and to the mentally ill committing crimes. The United States jails more people than any other country in the world, he said. Gill estimated around 2.2 million people in the United States are currently incarcerated.

Gill is serious about his duty to the community in keeping the people safe.

“I have a commitment to justice. I don’t get to bend corners,” Gill said.

Gill supervises two divisions within his office: Civil and Criminal. The civil division Gill explained, deals with new ordinances, tax issues and litigation. In the criminal division, Gill and his staff attorneys prosecute murders, rapes, and other crimes against people and property. Gill is serving a 4-year term, with the next election in 2014.

“There isn’t a more fulfilling job than a public prosecutor,” he said.

Gill believes passionately in the concept of “restorative justice.” It follows that when a crime happens in the community it occurs to three sections of people, the victims, the offenders and the community, he said. All are affected in some way.

And Gill added there should be a distinction among those who go to jail. “We lock up people that you fear, not that you simply dislike,” he said.

When asked what type of people Gill is putting in jail, he responded, “We are locking up lower-class minority people, poor people, drug abusers and the mentally ill in our jails.” There is a better way, he said, to keep society safe while deciding how punishment should fit certain crimes.

Since the early 21st century, all across the nation mental health courts have been catching on. Mentally ill criminals were filling up jails for repeated and petty crimes. They would be released and repeat the same behavior, filling up jail space and draining resources, Gill said.

Jackie Rendo, family and consumer mentor and advocate for the Third District Adult Mental Health Court in Salt Lake City, said, “We believe these people who are put in the mental health courts are only committing the crimes that are due in part to their mental illness. If they are treated properly or were never mentally ill in the first place then they would not be committing the crimes that they are. We are simply here to help treat them and help them recover to become successful and law abiding citizens again in our communities.”

The goal of the Third District Court’s mental health court is to help patients function socially, and help provide treatment to improve their lives.

“One in every four adults, and one in every 10 children, about 60 million Americans, suffer from mental illnesses,” Rendo said.

Mental health court helps provide participants opportunities to find housing, jobs, treatment and other support services. Everyone who commits a crime and is admitted to mental health court must go through extensive screening for serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Those who qualify for mental health court must commit to 12 to 36 months of supervision. Defendants facing serious felonies, such as DUI or sex offenses, are not allowed to attend mental health court. Once a defendant agrees to the program, he or she meets frequently with counselors, case managers and judges. If the defendant does not cooperate with scheduled meetings, medications, drug tests, or wants to quit the program, the alternative is a return to jail.