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Does criminal justice system account for mental illness? | Opinion


Utah doesn’t have a plan for those with severe mental illness, and it is costing taxpayers.

As a prosecutor, I encountered a lot of defendants with debilitating mental illnesses. 

Many were “frequent flyers,” continuously cycling through court for committing new offenses and not complying with probation.

This cycle comes at a price. Police, judges, public defenders, prosecutors, probation officers, jail stays, competency evaluations and restoration proceedings are not cheap. 

Consider Alice (name changed for privacy). In a single year, Alice picked up seven separate criminal cases for theft and possessing drugs, paraphernalia and burglary tools. 

Alice, like many people with severe mental illness, frequently missed court hearings. Over the course of a year, courts issued 10 warrants for failing to appear. Each time, police had to find her, arrest her and book her into jail until she posted bail or saw a judge. She served 47 days in jail that year, mostly for failing to appear in court.

Court dockets are generally devoid of human detail, but one of her cases memorialized this vignette: “Defendant’s husband came in to find out about his wife’s warrant. He indicated that she is homeless and is running amuck doing her thing. Looking at the case, he was advised that the warrant was for an overdue fine. He was advised that he would need to pay the past due amount to clear the warrant.”

He paid her fine, even though earlier that year he had filed for a protective order against her. Families of severely mentally ill people are placed in an impossible position: They want to help but are themselves at risk of being the victims of their loved one’s erratic, and sometimes violent, behavior. 

In each of Alice’s cases, a public defender was assigned. Each case was brought by a prosecutor and overseen by a judge, all at taxpayers’ expense. 

In the two theft cases, Alice was ordered to pay restitution. She never paid a penny, and the victims were never compensated. The unpaid restitution debt was sent to the Office of State Debt Collection where state employees tried to collect on the debt. However, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone nor cash from a homeless, unemployed, mentally ill person. 

At one point, a public defender caught on that mental illness was at play, and the court ordered a competency evaluation. Two evaluators concurred that she was not competent, and her pending cases were dismissed. Competence is a low standard that only requires that a person be able to understand the charges against them and consult with their attorney. The fact that two evaluators found her incompetent speaks to the profundity of her illness. 

In total, taxpayers were on the hook for over $50,000 in police, incarceration and legal expenses. And this doesn’t begin to tally costs that inadequately treated mental illness inflicts on other systems like housing, health care and social services. 

And what do we have to show for it?

Alice is still mentally ill, has continued to commit crimes and the public is no safer. 

For $15,000, Alice could have stable housing with wraparound mental health services for a year. This model has been pioneered in Denver’s Mason Place facility. Physically, it looks a bit like a hotel. Residents have their own small apartments, and there are communal laundry and congregating areas. Staff are present 24/7 to ensure safety and to coordinate with service providers like mental health professionals. At the very least, residents are off the street and not committing crimes. Many achieve far more: stability and consistent treatment help many get back to being healthy, contributing members of society. If this had been an option for Alice, maybe her perpetual cycling through the criminal justice system would have been interrupted.  

The criminal justice system was designed for rational people who respond to incentives. It’s a poor fit for people whose mental illness is so severe they are incapable of doing so.

Utahns are already paying for severe mental illness, but we are getting a poor return on our investment. We would get far more bang for our buck by investing in stable housing and mental health treatment that can end the cycle of criminality.

Amy Pomeroy works at the Liberitas Institute and resides in Lehi, Utah.





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