Opinion: The criminal justice system was not designed for people with mental illness

Opinion: The criminal justice system was not designed for people with mental illness

Utah doesn’t have a plan for people with severe mental illness, and it’s costing taxpayers a lot of money.

As a prosecutor, I have met many defendants with debilitating mental illnesses.

Many were “frequent fliers”, continually going through court for committing new offenses and breaching probation.

This cycle has a price. Police, judges, public defenders, prosecutors, probation officers, jail stints, skills assessments and recovery procedures don’t come cheap.

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

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

Court records are generally devoid of human detail, but one of his cases commemorated this vignette: “The defendant’s husband came to inquire about his wife’s warrant. He indicated that she is homeless and going wild doing her thing. Upon reviewing the matter, he was informed that the warrant was for an unpaid fine. He was advised that he would have to pay the outstanding amount to clear the warrant.

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

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

In both 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 State Debt Collection Office where state employees attempted to collect the debt. However, you cannot extract blood from a stone or money from a homeless, unemployed or mentally ill person.

At some point, a public defender realized mental illness was at stake and the court ordered a skills assessment. Two assessors agreed that she was not competent and her pending cases were dismissed. Competence is a low standard that only requires a person to be able to understand the charges against them and to consult with their lawyer. The fact that two evaluators found her incompetent speaks to the depth of her illness.

In total, the taxpayers had to pay more than $50,000 in police costs, incarceration and legal fees. And that’s not counting the costs that poorly 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 full mental health services for a year. This model was developed at the Mason Place facility in Denver. Physically, it looks a bit like a hotel. Residents have their own small apartments, and there is communal laundry and gathering areas. Staff are present 24/7 to provide security and coordinate with service providers such as mental health professionals. At the very least, the residents are off the streets and not committing crimes. Many get much more: stability and consistent treatment help many to become healthy members again and contribute to society. If that had been an option for Alice, perhaps her perpetual cycle through the criminal justice system would have been interrupted.

The criminal justice system was designed for rational people who respond to prompting. It’s a bad choice for people whose mental illness is so severe that they can’t.

Utahans are already paying for serious mental illness, but we are getting a low return on investment. We would get a lot more for our money by investing in stable housing and mental health treatment that can end the cycle of crime.

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

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