Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News Archives
The Utah State Capitol in the foreground and the Salt Lake Valley.

Gov. Gary Herbert and state legislative leaders tout Utah as the “best managed state” in the nation, according to Forbes, a pro-business publication. They point to an unemployment rate that has dropped from 8.4 percent to 3.6 percent since 2009, adding nearly 90,000 jobs. The governor said the state’s strong economy is “the rising tide that lifts all boats.” But Utah’s poor must be on a different boat. Theirs is not being lifted by the tide. It is being swamped.

Among their many needs, impoverished people require a boost in two main areas: education and treatment for mental illness.

While unemployment has gone down, the number of Utahns living in poverty has steadily risen since 2000, according to the Department of Workforce Services. Apparently, the poor are not getting many of the new jobs or the education to compete for them. Meanwhile, companies who want to move to or expand in Utah are starting to hesitate to do so because of a growing shortage of qualified workers.

Education is the key to future success for the less fortunate, especially preschool. But Utah legislators are loath to fund preschool programs. One program is Head Start, a time-tested 50-year-old federal program that teaches learning and social skills to poor kids. Utah is one of only seven states that do not provide funding to supplement federal dollars for Head Start, resulting in a waiting list of some 800 vulnerable children at one Salt Lake County Head Start provider alone.

Another vulnerable group the state has shortchanged is the mentally ill. Last year, the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health reported that fully 87 percent of the more than 423,000 Utahns who suffer from a mental disorder did not get the treatment they needed. Without therapy, their symptoms almost always get worse and often lead to arrest and imprisonment for preventable drug and other offenses, denying them an adequate education and a chance at gainful employment.

What have Utah legislators done about this growing problem? In 2013, revenue for the state’s general fund, which pays for treatment for the mentally ill and substance abuse, was almost $123 million higher than it was in 2009. Meanwhile, the budget for rehabilitation programs has decreased over the last five years. In fact, lawmakers sliced $3.5 million from the 2013 budget for these services.

Instead of adequately funding preventative treatment programs, legislators have found the funds to send them to the Utah State Prison, known as the largest and most inept behavioral health institution in the state, although treatment costs a small fraction of incarceration. Steven Gehrke, spokesman for the Utah Department of Corrections, said that an astounding 38 percent of the total inmate population of 6,991 is known to suffer from a mental illness. In a recent Deseret News article (“Study: Jails Becoming Nation’s New Asylums,” April 11, 2014), he acknowledged “prisons aren’t designed to cater to the mentally ill.”

Many inmates could have avoided prison if they had first been diverted into the mental health court system, a community-based preventative treatment regimen aimed at keeping an offender’s crimes from escalating into serious felonies. The recidivism rate for graduates of the program is less than one-fourth of those who do not go through it. Regrettably, the mental health court system is chronically underfunded, crippling its mission and making the state prison the de facto repository of mentally unstable convicts.

Preventative rehabilitation is not only the moral thing to do, but it is also cost-effective. It costs the state $27,000 per year to house an inmate; more if he or she requires psychotropic medications. If even one-third of the mentally ill inmates could have been diverted, taxpayers would have saved almost $24 million annually. That would buy a lot of treatment. It would also free up a significant number of beds at the planned new prison and extend by years its capacity to house convicts who deserve to be there.

State leaders can take credit for fostering a strong business climate. But before they can proclaim that Utah truly is the best managed state, they’ll have to balance their priorities with a commitment to compassionate social interventions. Only then will we be able to mine the untapped potential of all of our people and put us all in the same boat.

Larry Alan Brown is a writer, longtime government improvement advocate and business consultant in Alpine. Email: [email protected].