In Salt Lake County, a better option for justice


Since its creation in July 2001, mental health court in Salt Lake County is booming with results– helping not only individuals but the community, as well.

Two to five percent of people in the world deal with some sort of mental illness. Out of that percentage, 17 to 21 percent of inmates in United States jails are mentally ill.

“We do not think prison rehabilitates the person who is struggling,” said Tammi Odegard, Pahrump, Nev., Specialty Court Coordinator.

About 400 miles north of Pahrump, Salt Lake City is also addressing similar issues of treating the chronically mentally ill in the court system.

Mental health court is a combination of criminal justice and mental health agencies. An adult and juvenile mental health court has been established in the Utah courts for many counties. It provides services for treatment and case management, along with community supervision. The program’s goal is to leave each patient with improved mental health and personal well-being.

In addition, mental health court reduces recidivism and improves public safety, Odegard said. The goal is to decrease clients’ contact with the criminal justice system by providing different courts with resources that will improve the social function of the clients. Along with treatment and support, mental health courts link their clients with housing and employment opportunities, as well.

“These types of courts provide immense amounts of advantages to help the client, especially, dealing with their cases. It provides additional incentives for them to do well and prove themselves to the judge that will be their final sentence,” Odgeard said.

Graduating from a type of program like mental health or drug court also helps in a large aspect with other agencies in the judicial system, such as family court and with challenges of child custody. The program requires those who participate to demonstrate responsibility and a desire to change their ways. Officials in Salt Lake County have similar feelings on the issue.

“We need to be smart prosecutors, not zero tolerance,” said Sim Gill, Salt Lake County District Attorney, who has supported mental health and drug courts throughout his career as a prosecutor.

Gill points out that that before the implementation of mental health court in Third District Court in Salt Lake City, the commission of new crimes by the mentally ill hovered at 68 percent. Mental health court has helped decrease that number by 17 to 19 percent.

By keeping the chronically mentally ill from returning to jail time and again, society is saving money on public resources, too, Gill said.

Every 230 days an “event failure” occurs. Gill spoke of an event failure as a criminal who repeats another crime. Results have shown that after one goes through the mental health court, the number of days that a mentally ill person re-offended had increased to 1,300.

Although mental health court is voluntary and requires a long-term commitment — one year on average —  Gill and other proponents believe the program’s benefits far outweigh its costs.

In Third District mental health court, 51 to 100 participants enter the program each year. The court accepts participants who have been diagnosed with Axis I disorders- mental illnesses that are persistent or serious and require medications. Upon completion of the program, participants’ are likely to be reduced or entirely dismissed.

In the process of implementing mental health court in Utah, access to mental health resources has greatly increased. Gill said a vast number of people lack the access to get help, leading to the continuation of repetitive crimes and a resulting burden on the courts. Mental health court has helped to change that.

“We need to take care of their addiction, not just lock them up,” Gill said.


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.”

Sim Gill: Policing the police


In the United States, we like to think we’re number one in everything we do. There’s one top ranking, however, that the land of the free should not be so proud of: The U.S. incarcerates the most people in world.

More than Russia, more than China — the U.S. has about 2.2 million people in prisons and jails today, according to the U.S Department of Justice.

The majority of people now held in those prisons fall into three groups, which include minorities, the poor and the mentally ill, said Salt Lake County District Attorney, Sim Gill.

Gill, who served as a prosecutor for Salt Lake City for 16 years before he was elected as Salt Lake County District Attorney in 2010, has largely focused on helping to relieve the legal system of the burden of being the largest mental health institution in the U.S.

“The largest, number one, mental health facility in America is the L.A. County Jail,” Gill said. “By default, we have made our jails and prisons the mental health warehouses of our community.”

As a proponent of alternatives to incarceration, and not being content with the status quo, Gill introduced the idea of Mental Health Court to Salt Lake City 10 years ago. There were only eight other similar programs in the country at the time.

“We [prosecutors and police] are here to solve problems, not just simply process and warehouse people,” Gill said.

The chronically homeless and people who are considered a public nuisance generally have some form of mental illness, Gill said. Because they come from lower economic backgrounds, they typically cannot afford medications to help them function in society.

“Drugs are a poor man’s form of self-medication,” Gill said.

The vicious cycle begins when the mentally ill turn to illicit drugs to alleviate symptoms of their disease, such as hearing voices in their heads. They take drugs, cause problems, get arrested and get released from jail, only to head back to square one.

“I know very few mentally ill people who wake up in the morning and say ‘let me see how many crimes I can go out and commit,’ ” Gill said. “Often, the criminal activity is a consequence of their mental illness.”

Gill’s model for Mental Health Court is part of what he calls therapeutic justice. Mental Health Court operates within Utah’s Third Judicial District and is an alternative to jail time for people with mental disorders who have been picked up by law enforcement. The program is completely voluntary, and seeks to provide participants with the help they need.

Mental Health Court targets people who have been charged with misdemeanors and felonies and have been identified with axis one disorders – such as schizophrenia, schizo-effective and bipolar disorders, conditions that can be treated with medication.

People who take part in this program have to maintain weekly contact with their assigned caseworker. This is to help ensure the participant is properly taking medication as prescribed.

“The number one reason why someone who’s mentally ill stops taking their medication… because they start feeling good,” Gill said.

By Gill’s own account, Mental Health Court has been a success. Gill uses the recidivism rate as a measure. Before the program was instituted, the recidivism rate for offenders with mental illness was 68 percent. After Mental Health Court took hold in Salt Lake County, that number dropped to 19 percent.

Another inequity Gill started to examine while he was a Salt Lake City prosecutor is the disproportionate number of minorities in prisons and jails.

Gill, the first Indian-born person to be elected a district attorney in the U.S., served on the Salt Lake Committee on Racial Justice when he was the city’s public prosecutor.

The committee conducted an audit of the prosecutor office as it related to its treatment of minorities. The panel did not find any statistical proof that minorities were unfairly prosecuted. But the audit revealed certain ethnic groups had an arrest rate five times higher than others.

Gill believes such evaluations of governmental agencies are important and sees them as ways to ensure justice is properly served. He also believes audits help identify areas for improvement.

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.”

Mental health court offers a helping hand to those willing to accept


Are the court and prison systems really meant to seek out the morally right thing for communities, or are they too quick to target and punish those who are mentally unstable? Maybe there are more solutions to clean and sober living rather than simply locking people up.

Sitting hunched over in the front row of chairs at a chapel service at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake shelter with a bloody tissue from a generic nosebleed was 72-year-old Herbert Smith. Smith has been homeless for so long he no longer calls a single place home. “Being homeless is nothing pretty, it ruins you in ways you couldn’t even imagine,” said Smith. Drugs are most of the reasons why Smith has come into contact with prison cells. “It’s sad because most of the drugs are coming from different countries, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what a COCO leaf looks like, but I got it somehow,” said smith.

Historically the mentally ill (homeless) have been victims to the shackles of the law enforcement due to the addictions they may suffer from. People working in a field close to these people have to come up with some sort of better resource, and one person in this field in Sim Gill, Salt Lake County District Attorney. Gill recently laid out his foundation for the University of Utah about his plans on helping these people.

Gill, using his own resources looks at ways to help these unsettled human beings, by providing systems such as drug court and mental health court. These focus to help guide them in the right direction. They aid in providing new resources such as correct prescriptions, temporary housing and teaching them about self medicating.

“We can only help the people that want to be helped,“ Gill said. These systems are totally voluntary. They give people the choice, the chance, as well as the responsibility to turn their lives around. The ones who choose to participate will undergo weekly urine analysis to detect relapses. This process places them in a non-judgmental community, surrounding them with others who may suffer from the same problems.

Are the policies of the Law Enforcement making things better? Of course, they do a lot for communities to make civilians feel safer and protected, but the question that stems from this is; are they doing it in the right ways? According to Herbert Smith, “They track down the easiest prey they can find.”

Kreeck Mendez agrees with the systems that Gill has helped to put in place to help these people get back on their feet. “I find Sim a good supporter of these people,” said Kreeck Mendez. Although the systems are not perfect, she says they are the best resource she has seen in her 20 years of working with the courts.

Many criticize these people being temporarily housed in the parks, but no one is quick to help. “We tend to go after the people that make us uncomfortable not necessarily the ones we dislike or scared of,” said Deborah Kreeck Mendez, a legal defense attorney. The prisons have become temporary housing cells for mentally unstable people due to deinstitutionalization of mental health institutions. These people now have no place to go, except turning to the streets, where it makes them easier to target. “They are harder to work with, so why not get them away so my world is better,” said Kreeck Mendez.

Drug abuse is a serious problem for a lot of people in this country. The choices made ruins lives, families, careers, and many more things. Some say why not help the addicts, some say why help them its their problem. Deborah Kreeck Mendez says, “Drug problems should not be imprisoned, but helped.” What good does it do to lock them up and not give case management skills to help them get over their mistakes?

The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country, is it considered wrong when all we do is preach about LIBERTY and FREEDOM? “The law enforcement targets the people that are least able to help themselves,” said Kreeck Mendez. “White middle-class people get off with drug possession much easier than non-whites,” added Kreeck Mendez

We must look at the world in sections if this is the case. We are divided into pieces, leaving cracks separating us depending on our socioeconomic statuses as well as our race, ethnic backgrounds, and our conviction rates. Who’s to say every crack in this world may one day be filled!

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.

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