The nation's jails and prisons have become the nation's de facto mental health-care providers. It is estimated that 56 percent of all inmates have a mental illness and 26 percent have a serious mental illness.

The Los Angeles County Jail has become the nation's largest mental-health institution, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Rikers Island, a prison in New York state, holds an estimated 3,000 mentally ill inmates at any time, according to an August 2007 Time magazine report.

In Utah, people with mental illness tend to have long arrest records. Many self-medicate through illegal drug use. A report presented to state lawmakers this past week suggests Utah's criminal justice system is approaching a major crisis due to the growing number of repeat arrests of mentally ill people who are released back onto the streets.

Utah has an opportunity to intervene in this brewing crisis. It can build upon the successes of the Mental-Health Court, which was piloted in 3rd District Court seven years ago. The program, which works in conjunction with Salt Lake County, provides people with mental illness community based clinical treatment, access to housing and better medications. The goal is to stabilize their conditions, thus curbing the revolving-door phenomenon at county correctional facilities.

Mental illness is not solely a big-city problem. Officials in Cache, Weber, Davis and Utah counties have expressed interest in staring mental health court programs in their areas, according to Robert Yeates, executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and a former juvenile court judge.

Lawmakers should consider this expansion. It makes no sense to load up jails and prisons with people with mental illnesses. Jails have some success in stabilizing inmates' conditions, but many mentally ill offenders need more intensive services once they are released. Many end up back in jail. Adequate court supervision and carefully tailored mental health treatment could go a long way to change what has become a predictable course for far too many Utahns with mental illness.