A governor-appointed committee says Utah's criminal justice system is approaching a major crisis when it comes to the growing number of mentally ill people being repeatedly arrested and then released back on the street.

A report given to lawmakers at the state Capitol on Wednesday shows Utah's mentally ill tend to have long arrest records and tend to "self-medicate" through illegal drug use. Over the course of just a few years, Salt Lake County's most frequent mentally ill inmates had more than 15,000 contacts with police.

Because it costs $60 an hour for police to arrest and book a mentally ill individual, $800 for a fire crew to respond to any medical situations and countless more dollars for a judge and attorneys to handle the case in court, the cost to the community really adds up, said retired juvenile judge Robert Yeates, Executive Director for the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. It is estimated 56 percent of all inmates have a mental illness and 26 percent have a serious mental illness, the report shows.

Speaking to members of the Legislature's Judiciary Interim Committee, Yeates said across the nation prisons and jails have become the primary source for treating the mentally ill. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Los Angeles County Jail has become the nation's largest mental health institution. In fact, the top three mental health institutions in the country are jails and prisons, said Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill.

"You have to go all the way down to 14 or 15 to reach an independent clinic," Gill said.

Yeates and Gill said the governor had appointed a special committee to study the effects of mental illness on the community. Part of the problem, Gill said, is that jails and prisons are ill-equipped to handle mentally ill people.

"Jail staff do a good job at stabilizing them," Gill said, but added they lack the resources to provide treatment. By the time the inmate goes through the system, they are typically released without getting the treatment they need and are back in jail soon after.

Gill and Yeates point to a pilot program between 3rd District Court and Salt Lake County-called Mental-Health Court, a $600,000 program that began in 2001.

Over the last seven years, the county's Mental-Health Court program has proven it can stabilize people with mental illness by providing them community-based clinical treatment, access to housing and needed medications.

"We're not going to cure mental illness," Gil said, but "there is a better way to address the issue."

1 comment on this story

Committee members praised the work of the governor's committee but questioned how Mental-Health Court would co-exist with the state court's already existing Drug Court program. Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, wondered how Mental-Health Court can specifically help the growing number of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who have mental issues. Gill said the Utah Veterans Administration has worked with their program to provide veterans with their resources.

Gill said the mental-health issue is not just a big-city one but rather Utah's more rural areas may be in need of better mental-health treatment. Yeates said already officials in Cache, Weber, Davis and Utah counties have expressed an interest in starting a mental-health court program in their area.


E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com