Utah’s boasts of compassion and community will ring hollow if the state does not act swiftly to help dozens of mentally ill inmates languishing in prison cells without proper treatment.
Indeed, the state’s practice of incarcerating the severely mentally ill without providing judge-ordered care in a timely manner is the quintessence of “cruel and unusual.”
Cruel because the punishment of extended imprisonment is grossly disproportionate to offenses often committed without criminal intent.
Unusual because, among peer states, Utah has by far the longest wait times for treating mentally ill inmates.
A monthslong investigation by Deseret News reporters Daphne Chen and McKenzie Romero revealed that a growing cohort of Utah inmates, suffering from severe mental illness, are waiting close to half a year before receiving judge-ordered treatment in the Utah State Hospital.
Treatment is required before these people are mentally competent to appear before a jury.
There is an immediate need for more beds and services in the Utah State Hospital (some 35 people now are waiting for a bed in the hospital). Significantly improving the situation, however, may take a change in how mental illness is treated in the state and how police interact with the mentally ill.
Once the state provides adequate services for such people, the police can make informed decisions about locking up the mentally ill or funneling them to hospitals where professionals can assess their short- or long-term treatment needs.
In 2015, the Utah Legislature allocated an additional $300,000 a year for social workers to make prison visits to help bring some of the mentally ill inmates back to a level of competency where they are able to stand trial or negotiate a plea deal. This legislative move helped reduce wait times but was a small bandage: It has not come near to solving the problem.
"It's at a crisis point," said Darin Durfey, Utah County Sheriff's chief deputy, in the Deseret News report. "A lot of times, we know there's a problem that exists, but we wait until it's a crisis before we address it. And that's where we're at."
For comparison, Utah’s neighbor Colorado has a waitlist of 17 days. Arizona doesn’t have a waitlist. And in states like Oregon, Nevada and Idaho, the law demands that inmates be transferred to a hospital facility within a week.
Utah’s wait time?
One hundred forty-nine days.
Who will crusade for this cause? Will Gov. Gary Herbert? Will Speaker Greg Hughes? Will the superintendent of the Utah State Hospital?
The state needs a special session to address this crisis.
The system needs immediate funding so there’s sufficient room in Utah State Hospital to allow for these individuals to receive timely treatment. There also needs to be more funding to aid mentally ill people long before they are funneled into the criminal justice system.
Only then can police adopt practices that will allow them to make wise judgments about when mentally ill individuals involved in minor altercations are better suited for hospital help rather than a jail cell.