The Huntsman Mental Health Institute in Research Park in Salt Lake City is pictured on Nov. 4, 2019. Jean Welch Hill, the Salt Lake County's new Criminal Justice Initiatives director, says the criminal justice system needs to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment.

How Salt Lake County plans to tackle homelessness and improve long-term mental health

The Huntsman Institute for Mental Health at Salt Lake City Research Park is pictured November 4, 2019. Jean Welch Hill, Salt Lake County’s new director of criminal justice initiatives, says the criminal justice system needs to focus more about rehabilitation than punishment. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Jean Welch Hill has spent years advocating for solutions to end homelessness and prevent gun violence. Now, as the new director of the Salt Lake County Office of Criminal Justice Initiatives, Hill will be on the front lines of this issue.

Hill will be part of an ongoing push for more collaboration between city, county and state level government agencies working together to find solutions. Issues like homelessness, crime and mental health are often linked, she said, and it will take a lot of effort from all parties to make meaningful progress in the right direction.

“Homelessness is not a problem that occurs in a vacuum,” Hill said. “Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are reasons why crime happens and there are reasons why homelessness happens, and a lot of those reasons involve mental health issues as well. So yes, there is a great collaboration and I expect to see more going forward.”

Hill took over the county after years of working as director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. She began working for the county earlier this month, where she also serves as the director of the Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Advisory Board, which is made up of attorneys, judges, law enforcement officials and officials. elected.

“One of the most pressing issues in Salt Lake County is providing solutions that will allow individuals to successfully navigate through our homelessness, mental health and criminal justice systems,” the mayor said. of Salt Lake County, Jenny Wilson. “There are lots of opportunities and lots of work to do, and Jean is more than up to the task.”

Wilson said the criminal justice system is “as complex a system as we face in the county,” thanks to the intersection of homelessness, addiction and mental health. While officials have a duty to keep the public safe, she said, they also try to do so without being overly punitive, especially to offenders who suffer from substance abuse or serious mental illness.

End of cycle

Hill is well aware of the delicate balance that must be struck within the criminal justice system and believes that more should be done to address the root causes of homelessness and mental illness. For many, poverty or lack of access to basic needs can lead to crime and incarceration or prison, making it even more difficult to find a job or stable housing.

She believes a different approach would not only help offenders, but improve long-term public safety by keeping people out of desperate situations that can sometimes lead to crime.

“Some of the things we’re looking at right now are how to better serve people with serious mental health issues – who can’t and shouldn’t be served in prison – but have also done things that cause problems for public safety,” she said. “A lot of work is being done to address what happens when a person comes out of prison and has no home to go to. And how do we stop people from going from homelessness to the criminal justice system?”

“In doing so – in the process of stopping this cycle – we can also stop some of the criminal activity that is fundamentally based on poverty,” she continued. “Can we better help meet people’s needs so that they don’t commit crimes simply out of desperation not to have access to food, clothing or shelter?”

Hill said the state has already taken important steps toward that end, including the so-called Clean Slate Act, which went into effect earlier this year and allows many people with minor criminal offenses to see their locker automatically erased. The county has also been working to make similar changes, which ensure that people “are not perpetually punished for those stupid things they might have done when they were younger…so we’re not making it less likely that they could succeed. in the future,” she said.

Crime can often be a hot political issue, Hill acknowledged, but said much of the conversation is misguided and often doesn’t consider solutions that don’t involve long prison sentences for offenders. She disagrees with this approach, in most cases, and said these solutions ignore the fact that prison often does not offer real rehabilitation.

“It’s very easy to find sound bites about homelessness and criminal justice that aren’t helpful,” she said. “For example, you’re not tough on crime if you’re not just incarcerating people. that incarceration will be the solution that protects public safety, because the majority of people in prison get out and if we have done nothing but punish them, they will not come out of these establishments and will be ready to be suddenly a different person.

Hill said she would like to see people focus less on punishment as the goal, because the goal should be to “restore that person and the community they harmed.”

More options for offenders, law enforcement

Salt Lake County Council reached an important milestone this week, allocating $2.5 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund a temporary mental health reception center at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

State Representative Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, addressed the council before approving the funding on Tuesday. He said it’s one of the most bipartisan issues he’s worked on during his time on Capitol Hill, as nearly everyone on both sides of the aisle has been impacted by mental health at some point. of his life.

The Salt Lake County Jail is the institution with the largest population of people with mental illness in the state, he added.

“For too long, people with mental illness have been relegated to two options: jail or an emergency room,” Eliason said.

The temporary reception center is scheduled to open in April 2023 and will operate until the new Kem and Carolyn Gardner Mental Health Crisis Center is completed in the fall of 2024. The center will provide a safe place for officers law enforcement to bring those who are experiencing mental health crises when professional help is available.

“The county is designated as the mental health authority by the state, and we run the jail, so it’s a good fit,” County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said. “This investment will not only improve mental health outcomes, but also save taxpayers money in the long run.”

And after?

Hill welcomed funding for the temporary home, but acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done in the long term. She believes there is a lot to be done to change the perception of people with mental illness, as well as more work to address the long-term underlying causes.

In the years to come, she hopes to see more solutions to ensure that more people have access to health care and housing.

“At the end of the day, it would be ideal if we had specialized facilities that could meet the particular needs of those populations who do not have this type of treatment option and safe and stable housing options,” said said Hill. “Long term, we want to have a comprehensive system that would take people out of those systems because they now have the skills and capabilities they need to function more appropriately for our society.

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