Utah earns A+ grade for interventions that divert mental health clients from criminal justice system

Published: Friday, Oct. 25 2013 6:42 p.m. MDT

Utah's well-established mental health courts and crisis intervention teams serve about 91 percent of the state's population, the highest percentage nationwide, according to a study by the national nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has the highest percentage of residents in the U.S. who are served by mental health courts and law enforcement crisis intervention teams.

A survey by the national nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center gave Utah an A+ rating for its efforts to divert people with severe mental illnesses from the criminal justice system.

“At the top of the class, Utah and Arizona were the only states serving at least 75 percent of their population with both mental health courts and (crisis intervention) teams,” a statement on the study said.

The study found that 85 percent of Utah’s population resides in areas served by mental health courts, while 97 percent are served by crisis intervention teams.

Mental health courts divert qualifying criminal defendants from jail into community-based mental health treatment. Utah’s mental health court was launched in 2000 in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court.

According to the study, the state operates mental health courts in Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Washington and Cache counties. Utah also has designated mental health judges in juvenile courts in some judicial districts in the state.

Crisis intervention teams consist of specially trained officers who respond to service calls involving mental illness. Both programs have consistently been found to reduce the arrest and incarceration of individuals with severe mental illness.

Law enforcement agencies operate CIT programs in 21 of 29 Utah counties, according to the CIT Center at the University of Memphis, the report said. The Salt Lake City Police Department had the first teams statewide. The CIT program conducted its first academy in 2001.

Salt Lake police detective Ron Bruno, who conducts CIT training and administers the program statewide, said Utah may be ahead of the curve because government and private partners are willing to collaborate.

“A lot of times, people wait for the money to come in. Well, here in Utah, both programs (CIT and mental health court) were started with very little money. Basically, it was people taking it upon themselves, saying, ‘You know what? Let’s make this happen,'" Bruno said.

The report, published in August, praised states making significant efforts to divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system into treatment and other interventions. One-third of the states earned D or F grades. The national average was C+.

“In a better world, people with untreated severe mental illness would get help before their symptoms resulted in law enforcement involvement or criminal prosecution,” said Doris A. Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, based in Arlington, Va.

“Until that day, jurisdictions that fail to use such uncontroversial tactics as mental health courts and law enforcement crisis intervention teams are failing their citizens who suffer from severe mental illness and their communities,” Fuller said.

Even though mental health court and CIT programs are well-established in Utah, Bruno said he was surprised by the top ranking.

“I know we have a very strong CIT program and we have a very strong mental health court system throughout the state of Utah. Utah’s the first to have a federal mental health court, so we are pioneers in many ways," he said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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