When a Utahn who is mentally ill commits a crime, he may be stepping into a black hole, where he'll find punishment but little in the way of treatment for his illness.

There are 71 people committed to the forensics (criminal) unit of the Utah State Hospital. That number slightly exceeds the unit's capacity, and officials at the hospital say they would have more, if there were more room.Thirty miles and a totally different system away, there are at least 300 mentally ill inmates in the state prison. Experts say that estimate is low.

The prison has been criticized for housing, rather than treating, mentally ill offenders. But faced with insufficient treatment staff and tight budgets, the prison's hands are tied.

At the state hospital, someone who has committed a crime will receive the medications and counseling he needs to cope with his illness. In the prison, he may or may not, depending on his own willingness to cooperate and on resource limitations.

The prison's mentally ill offender - whether or not he has received treatment for his mental illness - may actually be released before the state hospital inmate who is receiving treatment.

Last week, a prison official said facetiously that to protect society from the mentally ill individual who commits a serious and possibly violent crime, Utah would have to "cure him or kill him."

Amid the irony, there lies more than a grain of truth. A criminal who has a mental illness can be incarcerated and society protected. But if he is released without adequate treatment of a mental illness that played a part in his crime, he is likely to reoffend. And 95 percent of all the inmates at the prison will someday be released.

We recognize that money is tight, particularly in the penal system, where a growing number of prisoners tax an already-stressed budget.

But this is one area where Utah can't have it both ways. If our citizens are to be safe from people who have mental illnesses and commit crimes, then those citizens must be part of the solution. They must be willing to make treatment of mentally ill offenders a priority.

That will take planning and education. As halfway house supervisor Hunter Finch points out: "The two systems were set up to do totally different things. Law is for community protection. Mental health is more treatment-oriented." They have "more not in common than in common."

Mental health and corrections are in a courting process. State hospital and prison officials, for instance, collaborate on the treatment and incarceration of some of the most seriously mentally ill criminals. Local mental-health officials work with jail staff in similar collaborations.

If it's going to work in a significant way, more Utahns need to come to the wedding.

And Utah needs to bring its checkbook. There's a lot to be done and it won't be cheap.

But, then, neither is ignoring the problem.