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Utah earns A+ for dealing with mentally ill people who commit crimes

Published October 31, 2013 7:27 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Much of America is "a disgrace" when it comes to dealing with mentally ill people accused of crimes, but Utah is an exception, a new study argues.

Utah earned an A+ grade for helping people with mental illness via crisis intervention teams and mental health court. The new rankings come from a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center that also includes this searing indictment of the nation's other states: one third of the states earn grades of D or F for diverting people with mental illness from jail.

The study pulls no punches, beginning with an opening sentence that calls the criminalization of mental illness "nothing less than a disgrace." The study goes on to say that there are three times as many mentally ill people in jails and prisons as there are being treated in hospitals. Moreover, the percentage of U.S. inmates with mental illnesses has tripled over the last 30 years, "to a current level of at least 16 percent."

But not all states are equal when it comes to serving those with mental illness. The study focused on "diversion," or the idea that people who commit crimes due to mental illness need treatment rather than punishment. The study also notes that the most common crimes committed by those with mental illnesses are non-violent, including drug offenses, property crimes, aggressive panhandling and an array of other things.

Utah, along with Washington D.C., topped the list for serving those people well. That's because in Utah, 85 percent of the mentally ill population with criminal cases is served by a mental health court. In addition, 97 percent of that population is served by a crises intervention team. Washington D.C. had a higher score, but both it and Utah earned A+ grades.

Mental health court is type of legal proceeding that looks much like a normal court, but which is focused on helping criminal defendants with mental illness. Crisis intervention teams are run by police departments and include specially trained officers who work with the mentally ill.

Doug Thomas, director of the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, attributed Utah's high scores to "collaboration at various levels." In a news release, Thomas said the programs help everyone and are a win-win for officers and the mentally ill.

Salt Lake City Chief of Police Chris Burbank said crisis intervention training saves lives and is available to officers statewide.

In contrast to Utah, 16 states earned a D or F grade for serving the mentally ill, with Rhode Island coming in dead last. Another 15 states earned a C+ or lower. The national average also was a C+. The study, which calls on officials across the nation to improve, provides several recommendations to that end.

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycdii