New plans for old problems

by: ZACHARY ARTHUR

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill recently voiced his policies on rehabilitating drug addicts while visiting a University of Utah class.

Gill, originally born in India, came to Utah in 1971 and is a graduate of the University of Utah and Lewis and Clark College of Law in Portland, Oregon.

Gill said that his interest in law started back when he was living in India. He described seeing a man who cleaned the Gill home for living wrongfully accused of stealing jewelry.

Authorities took the man in front of a crowd and beat him for the alleged crime. “I still remember as a little boy, walking out to the courtyard,” Gill said, “And they were wailing on him, they were beating on him”

This experience set the tone for how the rest of his life would play out. Gill began his career as a public prosecutor and after 15 years, he was appointed as chief Salt Lake City prosecutor by former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson.

Gill would go on to become the first Indian born district attorney in the history of the United States. Over the years Gill developed a passion for mental health issues and drug abuse, and the way that both tie together.

For Gill, mental health issues can lead to drug abuse, which then leads to prison for most. Unfortunately, instead of helping people with these problems while in prison and when they get out, he believes the system of continually sending them to prison becomes a habit.

“We as a result start locking up people that we dislike rather than locking up people that we are afraid of,” Gill said.

Numbers based on the people inside of the prisons is disproportionate to who is on the streets.

Two to five percent of people in society suffer from some kind of mental illness. Yet, 17 to 21 percent of people in prison suffer from some kind of mental illness.

How are these numbers so different and what different solutions are at society’s disposal?

Gill’s plan for the mentally ill who keep moving through the revolving door from the street, to prison and back again is for them to commit to a carefully supervised treatment plan.

Defendants who are ready to commit to a 12-36 month treatment plan will have support through Mental Health Court, administered by Third District Court in downtown Salt Lake City.

The treatment only excludes sex offenders, active DUI cases, excessively violent, and mentally incompetent people who cannot be treated with proper medication. This allows the program to reach a wide variety of people.

Gill believes, that if the people are ready to buckle down and commit to the treatment plan, then they are ready to be free of their addiction and able to treat their mental disease with some responsibility and determination.

Offering respect to those who struggle with mental illness pays off, Gill believes. “The worst thing you can do to a person is to make them insignificant, to disrespect them.”

So far, the program has been a success in several ways. The state has lowered the cost to treat the people in the program while increasing their care at the same time.

The average length of a prison stay for program participants has also decreased.

Chad Myers, a recovering drug addict who lives in Salt Lake City supports Gill’s view of restorative justice, including mental health court.

“I’ve been sober for four months now and I credit the majority of my sobriety to the programs put in place for me,” Myers said.

“My rehabilitation is going to be a battle that I face my entire life, but if I continue to be strong and work with the resources around me then I know that I will succeed in the end.”

Although Myers does not have any mental health, he still knows the depths of addiction.

“Every day is going to be a struggle because I was heavily addicted to cocaine, but I am confident in myself and what I am doing to know that I will not be going back.”

Utah’s mental health court addresses repeat offender problems

by JASON NOWA

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.