Mental health service access is limited in Salt Lake’s west side 

Story and photos by JACOB RUEDA

Residents in Salt Lake City’s west side face a lack of access to mental health and drug rehabilitation services. The area’s poverty level could affect residents’ access to care, although the immediate causal factor is undetermined. Other issues such as cost of treatment or zoning could explain why the area has an insufficient number of resources available. 

The Salt Lake County Health Department website says the county provides substance abuse prevention services through “community-based providers” by distributing information regarding drug abuse and prevention. However, the county itself does not provide treatment.

Child and Family Empowerment Services, at 1578 W. 1700 South, Suite 200, is one of the few mental health clinics in Salt Lake City’s west side.

Humberto Franco works at Social Model Recovery Systems, a nonprofit treatment facility in Los Angeles. Franco, a licensed professional in the healing arts, previously worked for a community-based health organization helping addicts in one of the poorest areas of the city. He says the cost of rehabilitation can impact access to it, especially in lower-income areas. But even with greater access, Franco says getting and maintaining qualified staff is a challenge facing treatment centers all around.

“People need to get that background in addiction and not only in psychology” in order for facilities to properly focus on treatment and rehabilitation, Franco says. Certifying and educating staff costs money, which raises the cost of services. With mental health and substance abuse issues becoming more prevalent, government has stepped in to help facilities in their treatment and rehabilitation efforts.

In September 2019, the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration awarded each state $932 million to combat the opioid crisis. It was part of a $2 billion grant from the Trump Administration. 

Aaron, who asked not to be identified because he’s in recovery, says politicians are more in tune with the needs of recovery and mental health than one might think.

“There’s a lot of people lobbying for recovery,” he says. “There’s a lot of representatives that donate their time and effort into working with the recovery community.” During the Rally for Recovery that took place Feb. 21, 2020, at the Utah State Capitol, Aaron heard politicians address the issue of access to mental health and substance abuse care.

Despite government efforts to help centers through funding and initiatives, other financial and socioeconomic factors can affect access to care in low-income areas like Salt Lake City’s west side. When government does not provide, the burden of responsibility falls on a nonprofit group or private organization. 

“A lot of these programs here in Salt Lake City in particular, most of them are privately funded,” Aaron says. Rehabilitation programs can cost $5,000 a month to start. At such prices, individuals in low-income areas may find it difficult to afford treatment. Certifying and maintaining staff aside, rents and property taxes affect the overall price as well. Since taxes are higher in commercial and industrial areas, finding where to establish a treatment facility becomes crucial.

The abandoned Raging Waters Park is a few blocks east of Child and Family Empowerment Services in Glendale. The area is one of the few residential spots in Salt Lake City’s west side.

Salt Lake City’s west side has more industrial and commercial areas than residential, particularly west of Redwood Road. Aaron says his recovery began in a wilderness rehabilitation program for substance abuse. Centers for recovery are usually established in areas that are conducive to well-being. Industrial areas do not serve that purpose. Factors that go beyond zoning can affect access to treatment on the city’s west side.

Leilani Taholo, a researcher and licensed clinical social worker with Child and Family Empowerment Services, says the problem is more complex. She has worked in the field for 37 years developing culturally sensitive programs. She initially designed a trauma intervention program called “Kaimani,” which means “divine power from the wave or the ocean.”

Child and Family Empowerment Services is located in Glendale and is one of the areas in Salt Lake City’s west side where mental health services are readily available.

Her office is located in Glendale and is one of the few centers located on the west side. It provides mental health services through the county’s OPTUM program, which accepts Medicaid and is funded at the state and federal levels.

A lack of overall funding combined with adverse socioeconomic conditions make it difficult for public or private centers to establish themselves in west-side neighborhoods like Rose Park and Glendale, Taholo says.

“I’ve spoken with many colleagues who have said, ‘I’m not sure if I want to put my clinic in Rose Park or in the Glendale area,’” she says. Taholo says her colleagues believe their clients feel safer getting treatment at their east side facilities.

Heads of families in west-side neighborhoods tend to work more than one job to make ends meet. Going to a center at night might leave them susceptible to harm or criminal activity.

Combined statistics from the Salt Lake Police Department for January 2020 show a slight increase in crime activity in District 2 compared with District 1. District 2 starts at Interstate 15 and ends at around 8000 West and goes from Interstate 80 to 2100 South. District 1 goes from I-80 to roughly 2700 North and 900 West to about 8500 West.

Taholo says that despite the perceptions of the west side as being crime ridden, the on-campus shooting deaths of two University of Utah students in 2017 and 2018 refute the idea that crime is strictly a west-side problem.

Regardless of the situation, people from around the west side come to Taholo’s center for help. She says she is amazed at the resilience not just of her clients but the people in the area. “They have taken the few resources that they have,” she says, “and they make it last in ways that you and I would never come up with.”

Post-incarceration life for the Pacific Islander community in Salt Lake City

Story and infographic by GEORGE W. KOUNALIS

According to the Utah Department of Corrections statistics, Pacific Islanders make up 3 out of every 100 inmates in their population.

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), said, “Pacific Islanders are 1 percent of the general population in Utah, 4 percent of the prison population, and it’s not getting any better.”

The question arises, what resources are there for those leaving the prison system and what can society do to give former inmates a second chance?

“The color of your skin makes a huge difference. I’m not being racist, I’m speaking from experience,” said Randy Tinoga, 46, in a phone interview about life after prison.

Tinoga came from Hawaii to Utah in 1999. He moved to get away from a meth addiction. In 2002 Tinoga relapsed and went through multiple drug rehabilitation facilities across Salt Lake City. Odyssey House was his last inpatient residential program, and soon after leaving, he began using again in a much bigger manner.

Tinoga received charges in 2005 and was sent to federal prison January 2006 and released in April 2011. Tinoga was put on probation through the federal system until 2014. After getting in trouble, Tinoga has stayed in Utah and has not returned to Hawaii.

When inmates are released they are required to spend six months in a federal halfway house. During that time period, they have to find employment and then they’re expected to contribute back to society.

“The resources are out there, people are afraid to take a chance on a federal felon,” Tinoga said about his post-incarceration life.

“Every person in federal prison feels like you’re starting one to two laps behind everyone else,” Tinoga said. “If you’re a Polynesian convicted felon, you feel like you’re five steps behind everyone else.” These statements speak to what the prison system does to those who go through it and the impact the system has on minorities.

Tinoga said the most important thing needed outside of prison is a telephone and family. “Without a family, you’re playing catch up,” Tinoga said. “Most Polynesians incarcerated come from strong families. They do have a strong support system.”

The concept of family is a significant aspect of Pacific Islander culture. “The collectivist perspective is very important to the Pacific Islander community,” said Oreta M. Tupola, community health worker section coordinator with the Utah Public Health Association.

Tinoga is living in Salt Lake County and involved with PIK2AR’s Kommitment Against Violence Altogether (KAVA) talks, a Pacific Islander male domestic violence advocacy group. “My transition back to public life was easier on my part,” Tinoga said. “If you want to make a change, you have to take a chance! If someone is willing to take a chance on a Polynesian American, take a chance on them.”

Pauliasitolo Vainuku, 39, describes his life after leaving prison. Vainuku went to federal prison for a bank robbery. He was released from prison and had his probation terminated in January 2018.

“A lot of things in our culture, we don’t like to talk about,” Vainuku said in a phone interview. “Abuse is there and it’s not talked about. That’s how a lot of Pacific Islanders join a gang because there’s a cultural understanding there for them.”

Tupola said, “Family is important in Pacific Islander culture. Gangs are from a loss of that identity and trying to look for it again.”

This is where groups like PIK2AR’s KAVA talks come in. They can help those who are struggling with abuse.

Vainuku’s brother, who was involved in a gang, was killed when Vainuku was 12. “After his death I was depressed. I had nobody to talk to,” he said.

Vainuku then turned to robbing at the age of 12. “When you’re depressed you don’t care,” he said. “Certain things you do make you feel alive,” he said, describing how his robbing began.”If you keep doing the same things it becomes normal.”

A couple of months after turning 18, Vainuku was sent to federal prison. “For me it was actually getting away. Getting locked up made me able to escape reality,” he said.

Vainuku said after getting out of prison, there were resources available to him. “There’s a second chance bill that lets small businesses hire us and they bond them for hiring us.” The Second Chance Act of 2007 “was enacted to break the cycle of criminal recidivism; improve public safety; and help state, local, and tribal government agencies and community organizations respond to the rising populations of formerly incarcerated people who return to their communities.”

The bill gives the small business a bond that provides insurance in case a former inmate ends up robbing or doing damage to the business as well as a tax break for the business. Bills like this give former inmates of the federal prison system a second chance.

Vainuku spent six months in a federal halfway house while he worked and saved money to live independently. “The federal halfway house makes you actively look for employment,” Vainuku said.

These programs help federal prisoners when they adjust on the outside, but Utah State prisoners don’t receive many of these resources, according to Vainuku.

According to the Utah Department of Corrections, mental health resources are offered at Utah State Prison for prisoners within the system. “We’re coming out and not getting the help and support with mental health,” Vainuku said. “For the guys in prison, they need to get help in prison and get ready to come out.”

A May 2017 article in the Deseret News backs up what Vainuku said. Many of those in the Utah corrections system are not receiving appropriate care when they leave prison.

Vainuku said the state of Utah could do more to help inmates coming out. “In the state prison, they’re stuck in a cell with their cellie and get a packet. They’re not getting classes or help for life on the outside.” According to Vainuku, this packet is the only resource that state prisoners in Utah receive prior to being discharged.

Racial prejudice within jail is also a factor that makes it difficult for inmates. “Prison is a negative setting, the guards tend to get stuck in a negative mindset with an us versus them mentality,” Vainuku said. “The guards build a prejudice and they do things that upset the prisoners more.”

Tinoga said, “Stereotypes are bad all the way around. A good number of Polynesian men are first-time offenders.” Stereotypes of Pacific Islander men being pushed by society at large creates very negative environments that can hinder the lives of many of these men.

It’s important for society to look beyond stereotypes and give former inmates a second chance. “Just giving someone the opportunity helps,” Vainuku said. “Look at the individual instead.”

Many of these changes that society needs start at a community level. Challenge stereotypes, give individuals a second chance. Community-driven resources are also important.

In a 2016 Seattle Times article, Sarah Stuteville talks about the Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (F.I.G.H.T), a group of former Pacific Islander and Asian inmates who work to provide resources to those leaving the Washington State penal system. The Utah Department of Corrections does offer programs to inmates, however, nothing specifically like the F.I.G.H.T group offered in Washington state.


Food trucks serving up a crowd in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by DAVID FISHER

See what food trucks are serving up on the streets of Salt Lake City.

Korean barbeque, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, slow-roasted barbeque and delectable cupcakes are only a few of the options available during Food Truck Thursdays at The Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake City. Hundreds of customers rally in from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. between 200 and 300 South every Thursday afternoon to purchase endless amounts of street food during a weekly local gathering of food trucks.

Creating a social scene, food truck-goers interact with one another as they wait in line for their food. This is a unique dining experience; the diversity of the dishes and the à la carte style of eating is not something that can be found at a typical sit-down restaurant.

Three years ago, food trucks were required to follow a strict set of laws that prevented them from gathering within private properties of Salt Lake City. However, in April 2012 this law was changed to permit food trucks to gather in these areas and serve a wide variety of customers. This has created a totally new scene, and a plethora of newly successful businesses on wheels.

What started as only four food trucks in 2012, has increased to more than 40 trucks that roll through the streets of Salt Lake City.

One such food truck is Cupbop, a truck known for its Korean food in a to-go cup. Beef, spicy pork, chicken, or a meat combo are options available for customers to enjoy over rice, noodles and vegetables. All meat is slow roasted and marinated in a delectable homemade sauce that owner Junghung Song learned to make on a church mission he served for three years in South Korea. Each cup is covered in a savory sauce that ranges from mild to spicy. Song uniquely named the mild seasoning “baby spice” (level 1 spicy). For those who like a spicier dish, he recommends the “melt your mouth spice” (level 10 spicy).

Cupbop’s motto is “Shhhh, just eat,” which Song describes as not asking what Cupbop is, but rather just trying it for yourself.

Song went to a Salt Lake City restaurant convention in spring 2013 and noticed there were not any Korean food restaurants. This was when food trucks were starting to appear within the city. He wanted to start his own unique Korean barbeque food truck to serve his homemade recipe to customers.

Song quit his job working for an advertising company and decided to pursue running his own local business on wheels. It only attracted a few customers at first, but now Cupbop is one of the most popular food trucks in Salt Lake City. A large line of customers always gathers up the steps of the Gallivan Plaza every Thursday afternoon.

Waiting in line for food can be boring, but Cupbop makes it an experience.

Song is known for having his employees who work within the truck come out and sing and dance with the people waiting in line. Korean pop music echoes through the plaza as customers attempt to sing along to tunes that they are hearing for the first time in a language they may not understand.

“If I’m not having fun, I cannot smile to my customers,” Song said. “A bad experience would make you want to leave, and never want to come back. This is your lunch break. I don’t want you to stress out during an already busy day.”

Song always serves Cupbop with a smile, and hopes to bring a smile to all of his customers’ faces. He wants them to come back for more.

“Sometimes the other food trucks find us annoying because we are so loud,” Song says while laughing.

Song communicates with all of the other owners of food trucks because they are beginning to become their own community. Song runs and operates Food Truck Underground, which allows people to vote on locations for food trucks to gather. Food Truck Thursdays at the Gallivan is just one of many gatherings that occur throughout the week.

One truck that participates in Food Truck Underground is Heidi Cakes Utah, a food truck specializing in gourmet cupcakes made from scratch with fresh ingredients. Known for the eye popping, spotted bright pink motorhome, Heidi Cakes Utah has been serving customers for a little more than two years.

Owner Janine Lestwich wakes up every morning at 4 o’clock to start baking hundreds of her cupcakes in the commercial kitchen attached to the back of the motorhome. All cupcakes are loaded and ready to be sold for $3 apiece by 9 a.m.

What started as a bake sale to raise money for an annual anti-drug and alcohol rally is now a large-scale business. Ten percent of profits that Lestwich makes from selling her cupcakes is given to, which educates youth about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

With sales and donations combined, Lestwich has raised more than $10,000 toward since the start of her business.

“We are one of the few food trucks which only sells desserts and donates profits to a good cause,” Lestwich said. “We have no competition. Our customers want to keep coming back to support the cause and my business. I really appreciate everybody coming together.”

When the Heidi Cakes Utah truck is not at Food Truck Thursdays, it can be found in downtown Ogden or at local car dealerships.

One of the biggest challenges that both Cupbop and Heidi Cakes Utah face is when the truck decides not to work. This includes engine failure or oil leaks and problems within the kitchen.

“Truck issues are extremely difficult to deal with,” Song said. “It can completely shut down our business and decrease profits, especially in the winter. But it’s worth it because it creates a challenge.”

Both Cupbop and Heidi Cakes Utah inform customers of these problems through social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Because both trucks do not have an official website, this is their means of communicating to the public.

For Heidi Cakes Utah, Lestwich posts a daily menu and schedule on Facebook and Instagram as to where her truck will be located and what she will be serving that day. She listens to her customers’ words. If they are requesting a specific flavor of cupcake or for her to be at a certain location, she will respond.

“I share a lot of my personal life on my business Facebook,” Lestwich said. “People don’t get angry when I have to take a week off from my truck because they know I am visiting one of my daughters in Tennessee or Texas. Sometimes you just need to put family before business.”

Lorna Balfour, 21, is a customer of Heidi Cakes Utah who has been following the business for the past few months on social media platforms.

“I try to come down to Food Truck Thursdays as much as possible during my lunch break,” said Balfour, who works at the University of Utah. “It’s a place where the community comes together to try new foods that they may not have tried before. I go to Heidi Cakes because of the cause she supports and her red velvet cupcake.”

Balfour follows a multitude of food trucks on Instagram and Facebook so she can stay up to date as to where they are located. Sometimes she posts photos on Instagram of the food she gets from the truck and her friends always ask her about where she got the food in her photographs. She describes it as being a part of a community that is unique to Salt Lake City.

Song explains that with Cupbop, most of his new customers come because they saw social media posts from friends of theirs. Free Cubop is offered to customers who share images of their food on social media to an abundance of followers or give a great review. It is a type of reward that Song likes to give as a thank you for marketing for his truck.

The food truck community within Salt Lake continues to grow as more food trucks are beginning to gather in public places. This creates a village of a melting pot of different styles of food for customers to enjoy. There’s always something new to enjoy, and a new favorite food truck to be discovered.

From India to District Attorney; Sim Gill fights for Salt Lake County


As a young boy in India, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill developed a metaphorical theory from a real life experience.

Gill, 52, spoke in a faint Indian accent of a formative moment from his youth, to a classroom of 13 students recently at the University of Utah.  At the age of “eight or nine” in his native India, Gill said, he witnessed the brutal beating of a man accused of stealing jewelry from a neighbor’s home, and in the end, the beating of an innocent man.

“That left a very strong impression on me,” Gill said, “that when you have that authority, when you have that power, when you have that capacity to alter and impact people’s lives, you have to really use that with a great level of deference and responsibility.”

Gill immigrated soon after that with his family to the United States. Years later, Gill studied history and philosophy at the University of Utah and as a young prosecutor, this memory would influence his practices.  Gill’s background in philosophy was the obvious reasoning behind his principles as a liberal prosecutor, pronounced when he wrote the term “Restorative Justice” on the classroom whiteboard. That phrase, he explained, helps to explain his approach to addressing certain chronic crimes in Salt Lake County.

Since Gill took office in 2011, initiatives such as drug and mental health court are examples of how helping a troubled person is a much better option than simply incarcerating him.

Rehabilitation courts, Gill said, are one  solution to limited resources.  Having a “zero tolerance” policy is one thing many citizens want, but Gill described that model as “doomed to failure.”  Writing  on the whiteboard, again, Gill emphasized that a “zero tolerance” model would require unlimited resources, a limited number of cases and unlimited time.

Advocates for rehabilitation not only come in the form of Sim Gill, but organizations and individuals who have first-hand knowledge of addiction.

Volunteers of America (VOA) is a non-profit organization in Salt Lake City that deals with the homeless, directly on the street.  And former VOA employee, Kyle Patton, has similar sentiments towards Gill’s approach as a district attorney.

“It’s important to have those types of resources for the homeless. I think drug and mental health court help to put their [homeless population] behavior into context,” Patton said. “People get all up in arms about institutionalizing the mentally ill. But I think resources like these courts are one of the solutions to that problem.”

In late February, a rally at the Utah State Capitol was held for those, who like Gill and Patton, champion the issue of rehabilitation.  “Drug Court Works. Ask Us how,” one homemade sign read. Held by a woman among the hundreds of people who had gathered to implore Utah legislators for more funding.

“Hope=funding,” was another common sign at the rally, as recovering addicts and public officials spoke to echoed cheers.

“Not everybody needs treatment, but we all need an opportunity to have it,” said one recovering addict named Shannon. “Your story matters, so find your representative and tell them why recovery is so vital for our future. We can all work together to change the system.”

Gill’s ultimate mission is to help those who can no longer help themselves. And in the United States, the prison population is made up of 17 to 21 percent of mentally ill inmates, Gill said. This statistic that is the driving force behind rehabilitation courts for those afflicted with substance abuse and the mentally ill who no longer have support.

Utilizing these initiatives is completely voluntary, but those in dire situations can no longer say  they didn’t get a break,” Gill said. “Restorative justice” ultimately presents a solution, instead of simply viewing those who lack support for their issues, as a problem.  Organizations like VOA and rallies at the Capitol can help present opportunities to those in need of help, but Gill has actual power to change the way things work.

Those two hours that Gill spoke about his beliefs, he didn’t have to convince the students to vote for him, or find a way to get funding for a project.

It was just simply two hours of Sim Gill being exactly who he is.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, mental health court, address criminal recidivism in Utah


Taking action to solve Utah’s homeless problem could save Salt Lake City taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Homeless men and women wander the streets of downtown Salt Lake City every day. Many avoid the homeless, brush off their panhandling and go about their daily business. They never stop to think about how these people ended up in their current situation, much less how the growing problem of the mentally ill homeless population might cost far more in taxes than a handful of quarters to a panhandler ever will.

Since 2001, the Salt Lake County mental health court has been helping to reduce the rate of criminal recidivism among Salt Lake City’s mentally ill. Through a system of what Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill likes to call “restorative justice,” the mental health court has reduced repeat offenses through weekly court dates and proper medication. This therapeutic take on justice is what Gill believes will not only help with Salt Lake City’s homeless criminal offense problem, but also save taxpayers a lot of money.

“We are bankrupting ourselves into oblivion,” Gill said of the current system of “zero tolerance” enacted by most of U.S. law and justice systems. “We need to seek out alternatives to incarceration; we need to focus on therapeutic justice, and we need to focus on locking up those we are afraid of, not those who we don’t like.”

Salt Lake County’s mental health court works on what Gill calls a “system approach,” something he thinks of as simple problem-solving. He believes that all too often, the legal system relies on “crisis management” rather than proactively preventing repeat offenses by taking active measures right away. This is the core of mental health court.

“The neat thing about the people we serve in mental health court is that simple medication is often enough to reduce recidivism,” said Jeannie Edens, supervisor of the Day Reporting Center of Criminal Justice Services (DRC).

Edens’ work at DRC allows her to see the benefits of mental health court both for the participants who are sent to the program as well as the taxpayers whose money is being put to more efficient use. She feels that the work being done at DRC is important to a fair judicial system.

DRC provides an alternative to jail time by allowing criminals to participate in intensive case management that includes treatment, educational and employment opportunities to prevent criminal recidivism. DRC  works regularly with Salt Lake County’s mental health court.

“In a regular court setting a judge may not know that a person has mental health problems,” Edens said. “They think it’s just another substance abuse problem and could sentence them to longer and harsher punishments.”

It’s those longer sentences that usually end up costing Utah taxpayers. According to Gill, conservatively, the average cost of detaining, treating and processing a mentally ill criminal offender is often in the range of thousands of dollars. That includes the cost of police dispatch, ambulance, medical treatment, court processing, and jail time—all of which, Gill said, is coming out of the taxpayer’s wallet.

“So it’s not just a good progressive idea that I’m talking about,” Gill said. “It’s become a fiscal reality as well.”

For Gill, however, mental health court provides more than just an opportunity to reduce repeat offenses and increase fiscal efficiency in Salt Lake County’s criminal justice system. It also allows the criminal justice system to treat these mentally ill offenders in a manner that denotes respect and dignity, despite their current situation.

“The worst thing you can do to a person is make them insignificant,  to disrespect them,” Gill said. “This program [mental health court] respects them.”

It’s that respect that Gill believes has helped to bring about the success of mental health court in Salt Lake County. Through the program, officials have seen a decrease of recidivism from 68 percent to between 17 to 19 percent among participants, Gill said. Additionally, the number of “event failures,” the amount of time between significant lapses of criminal behavior, have increased from an average of 230 days to more than 1,300 days.

“Is this a perfect model? Absolutely not,” Gill said. “Is it a better one? Damn straight.”

Mental health court offers refuge for repeat offenders


Watching as law enforcement officials beat a near elderly man, as ordered by the prosecutor, a young boy was impacted forever.  Eight year-old Sim Gill, growing up in his native India, could not shake the image from his mind. He later found out the man had been wrongly accused of theft.

The childhood experience continues to inspire Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, as he works to restore justice on a day-by-day basis. Gill stands behind his mission statement to be firm and fair, swift and sure of holding offenders accountable for their criminal conduct.

In the United States,  more people are jailed than in any other country. The number of ethnic minorities in prison tops the list. U.S. incarceration rates are growing at a staggering rate. According to Gill, from 1970 to 2011, the numbers of jail and prison inmates grew from 700,000 to 2.2 million.

“We need a new approach,” Gill said. “We are locking up people we dislike, not just the people we are afraid of.”  The jailing of so many people has major impacts on all aspects of life in the United States, he said. The numbers affect society, especially in rising costs to the taxpayer.

What “new approach” could possibly work?  Gill believes it all begins with reforming mental health aid and with offering help to the chronically mentally ill. In order for a new approach to be funded and to work credibly, it needs to be safe for all involved, just and it must make fiscal sense.

More than one-fourth of people in jail suffer from mental illness, Gill said, explaining how the cycle of jail time typically works for the mentally ill: They serve time for crimes such as public intoxication and trespassing, then get released back to the streets and commit the same crimes again.

This is where Gill’s ultimate passion comes into play: Mental health court.  Those who have been charged with a crime and have mental disorders have the opportunity to voluntarily attend the program, within Utah’s Third District Court. Excluding sex offenders, active DUI cases, and excessively violent people, the court’s purpose is to closely supervise mentally ill defendants for 12 to 36 months.

“This is the fair break, the one opportunity given to these individuals who crave dignity of being treated as a human being.” Gill said.

Scott Mathis, a graduate of mental health court, attributes all of his success and confidence to the program. “I was lost, lost and confused. I was without any options and down deep into a dark hole without sight of any change. This program is the reason I am healthy today,” Mathis said. Because mental health court is voluntary, the individuals attending have consciously chosen to be there. The program’s volunteer nature has real impact on a participant’s attitude and commitment. The focus is not simply on punishment, but on treatment.

On its face, the program may seem to be letting criminals off easily. But mental health court‘s long-term recovery goal requires a solid commitment from those who participate. They are required to attend all meetings, get tested for drugs, evaluations and report to their assigned officer. “The program is not easy, that’s all I have to say,” Mathis said with an honest smirk. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but without a doubt, the best thing, too.”

Mathis now holds a full-time job in Salt Lake City, participates in speaking groups and serves as an active advocate for the program that turned his life around forever. “ I had been in and out of jail for numerous reasons, nothing ever changed. If not for the program I would be in jail, with fines up my ass, without any job options, and most critical, my three year-old son would not have a father in his life,” Mathis said.

Mathis has now been sober for almost two years, and has custody of his son.

“The mental health court program has potential to lift up our communities in countless ways. My life would not be the same without it, period.”

Mentally ill find refuge and help at mental health court


About 45 people assembled inside a Third District Courtroom in the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City and waited to talk to the judge.

An elderly man, who wore a brown, baggy suit coat that hung awkwardly on his small body, kindly greeted some old friends and then sat quietly among the audience.  He stared at his hands folded tightly in his lap and waited for his name to be read.

A woman, who appeared to be about 25, wore bright, tight-fitting clothing and tall stiletto heels.  Several pairs of large, flashy earrings adorned her ears.  Before sitting down, she chatted with friends, laughing and sharing jokes.

The court bailiff stood at the front of the room and read a list of names. Those who heard their names left their seats and stepped forward.

One-by-one, each stood at the podium and spoke with Third District Court Judge Judith Atherton about the events of the past week.

Welcome to Salt Lake County’s mental health court. The defendants here will not be sentenced to hard time in jail, so long as they commit to certain rules of behavior and take their medication.

The Salt Lake County Mental Health Court was founded more than 10 years ago.

“One of our main purposes here at mental health court [is] to get people to a point that they can maintain for the rest of their lives,” said Atherton, at mental health court earlier this year.

The mental health court program is voluntary. Participants commit to participate for 12 to 36 months.

Those participating stand before Atherton every week as she reviews the weekly report submitted by the participant’s caseworker.

In addition, participants agree to take all medications as prescribed and to obey all laws and other regulations.  Participants have contact throughout the week with their caseworkers to ensure compliance with these regulations.

If participants come to court and are off their medications, Atherton will order them to jail to be stabilized.

“The first thing we’re concerned about, Derek, is your welfare,” said Atherton to a mental health court participant.

The number one reason for mentally ill people to stop taking their medications is that they feel well and no longer believe they need medication, said Salt Lake County District Attorney, Sim Gill, who has made mental health court one of his top social justice priorities.  That is one of the reasons for frequent court appearances.

“Thank you for helping me. Thank you,” said Justin, who graduated from mental health court on Monday. “Everyone in here can do this.”

All who were present, including Atherton, applauded and congratulated the recent graduate.

Those eligible to participate in the mental health court have committed a misdemeanor or a felony, have an Axis one disorder (which means that their disorder can be treated with medical support), and must be legally competent.

Mental health court excludes the participation of sex offenders, those with open-active DUI cases, and the “excessively violent.”
“Is this a perfect model? Absolutely not. Is it a better model? [Darn] straight,” Gill said.

Gill said that the United States once had mental health institutions.  However, the institutions were abused and were therefore demolished by the Reagan Administration during the 1980s.

“By default, we have made jails and prisons [the] mental health institutions of our country,” Gill said. The Los Angeles County Jail,  he said, is the largest mental health facility in the United States.

Gill added that criminal activity is often a result of mental illness.

And, after mentally ill people are released from jail or prison, they often repeat the same crimes or commit new crimes because of their untreated illnesses.

The U.S. leads the world in jailing the most people, followed by China, Russia, and Cuba.

This excess in jailing U.S. citizens uses tax dollars and resources.

Gill said that the solution to this is something he calls “smart prosecution.” This includes alternatives to incarceration, therapeutic justice and locking up only those who genuinely breed fear in society, as opposed to those we simply do not like.

Mental health court is a form of smart prosecution and was created under the “systems,” or problem solving, approach.

“We lowered cost but increased care [with this model],” Gill said.

Utah’s mental health court addresses repeat offender problems


Sim Gill believes that jail is for people who have murdered, raped, or who have harmed children. Jail is not a place for the mentally ill. He is in the process of trying to accomplish this.

Gill, who is the Salt Lake County District Attorney, recently spoke to small group of University of Utah students about his job and the passions that drive him. Gill spoke about various processes,  from how he deals with the death penalty, drug abuse and to the mentally ill committing crimes. The United States jails more people than any other country in the world, he said. Gill estimated around 2.2 million people in the United States are currently incarcerated.

Gill is serious about his duty to the community in keeping the people safe.

“I have a commitment to justice. I don’t get to bend corners,” Gill said.

Gill supervises two divisions within his office: Civil and Criminal. The civil division Gill explained, deals with new ordinances, tax issues and litigation. In the criminal division, Gill and his staff attorneys prosecute murders, rapes, and other crimes against people and property. Gill is serving a 4-year term, with the next election in 2014.

“There isn’t a more fulfilling job than a public prosecutor,” he said.

Gill believes passionately in the concept of “restorative justice.” It follows that when a crime happens in the community it occurs to three sections of people, the victims, the offenders and the community, he said. All are affected in some way.

And Gill added there should be a distinction among those who go to jail. “We lock up people that you fear, not that you simply dislike,” he said.

When asked what type of people Gill is putting in jail, he responded, “We are locking up lower-class minority people, poor people, drug abusers and the mentally ill in our jails.” There is a better way, he said, to keep society safe while deciding how punishment should fit certain crimes.

Since the early 21st century, all across the nation mental health courts have been catching on. Mentally ill criminals were filling up jails for repeated and petty crimes. They would be released and repeat the same behavior, filling up jail space and draining resources, Gill said.

Jackie Rendo, family and consumer mentor and advocate for the Third District Adult Mental Health Court in Salt Lake City, said, “We believe these people who are put in the mental health courts are only committing the crimes that are due in part to their mental illness. If they are treated properly or were never mentally ill in the first place then they would not be committing the crimes that they are. We are simply here to help treat them and help them recover to become successful and law abiding citizens again in our communities.”

The goal of the Third District Court’s mental health court is to help patients function socially, and help provide treatment to improve their lives.

“One in every four adults, and one in every 10 children, about 60 million Americans, suffer from mental illnesses,” Rendo said.

Mental health court helps provide participants opportunities to find housing, jobs, treatment and other support services. Everyone who commits a crime and is admitted to mental health court must go through extensive screening for serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Those who qualify for mental health court must commit to 12 to 36 months of supervision. Defendants facing serious felonies, such as DUI or sex offenses, are not allowed to attend mental health court. Once a defendant agrees to the program, he or she meets frequently with counselors, case managers and judges. If the defendant does not cooperate with scheduled meetings, medications, drug tests, or wants to quit the program, the alternative is a return to jail.

Drug courts beneficial for users seeking rehabilitation


The Utah State Courts report that arrests for drug-related crimes have doubled in recent years, which has become motivation for the state to turn to drug court programming over incarceration.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill helped to implement drug courts in Utah more than 10 years ago.

But with continually rising drug arrests, the program has become important in recent years as a way to lower costs of incarceration for the Utah taxpayer.

“Drug courts work by recognizing that unless substance abuse ends, fines and jail time are unlikely to prevent future criminal activity,” according to the Utah State Courts.

Gill said the average cost to jail someone in Salt Lake County is $71 a day, a sum that quickly adds up when the rate of incarceration for non-violent drug users is consistently increasing.

“Crime is going to be around,” Gill said. “My challenge has been to create a situation where we can proactively reach in and collaborate with our communities in order to not be crisis managers, but be proactive agents who contribute to alleviating these issues.”

Gill said the way to do this is by promoting rehabilitation. After treatment in drug courts, Gill said, the recidivism arrest rate—that is, the likelihood in which people commit new crimes—decreased from 68 percent to around 23 percent.

John Anderson, a criminal defense attorney in Salt Lake City, said the criminal recidivism rate is universally accepted in the legal system as statistical fact and speaks to the success of the programming.

According to the Urban Institute and the Center for Court Innovation, the success of drug courts has been seen nationwide. A study of 23 drug courts in seven states showed that drug use was reduced by one-third after 18 months of participation in the programs, and the case studies were responsible for half as many criminal acts as those not participating in drug court.

“Largely because of these reductions in criminal behavior, drug courts ended up saving an estimated $5,680 dollars per participant,” the study said.

But Anderson said that drug courts are only successful for those who actually want to be there.

“The courts are hard-core. The requirements to participate are onerous. If someone puts in some effort and takes it seriously, they can curb the addictions and behaviors that got them there in the first place.”

If someone doesn’t want to actively participate in the programming, jail time seems to be the easier alternative, Anderson said.

Tiffany Brown, who served as a Utah Assistant Attorney General and Salt Lake County District Attorney, has actively worked with drug court participants.

“It’s hard for me as a taxpayer or as a member of the legal system to incarcerate a person who is solely ingesting substances that are harmful to him or herself,” Brown said. “So when you have that straight drug user who doesn’t go out and commit property crimes or violent crimes, or doesn’t harm anyone else, I don’t want to waste money on that person—ever.”

Brown said drug court programming is an effective way to reduce costs because the taxpayers are not providing health care, foster care, and other programming for incarcerated people or their children.

But the system is not perfect, Brown said.

“It’s a uniquely designed system that helps take a step back from traditional legal procedures and promotes rehabilitation,” Brown said. “But flaws exist as a result of the inability to totally fund the system in the way that it needs to be funded, in order to ensure that the people who are participating are more concerned about usage and less concerned about being caught.”

If the person lacks the desire to recover, the program’s benefits drop substantially, Brown said.

But Gill said that overall, drug court is both the economically and psychologically sound alternative.

“It’s not just a good progressive idea that I’m talking about,” Gill said. “It has become a fiscal necessity.”

“The worst thing you can do to a person is make them feel insignificant.” Drug court programming has started to prevent that, he said.

%d bloggers like this: