Robert Gehrke: Here’s what the story of one man, jailed more than 100 times, can tell us about addiction, mental illness and homelessness

Robert Gehrke

Last month, police in South Salt Lake were called to the home of a woman who said her ex-husband was creating a disturbance and refused to leave — in violation of a protective order.

When officers arrived, they found him lying on the back steps, reeking of alcohol and unable to get up. He had two bottles of vodka in his front pocket and officers took him to jail — a place he was all-too familiar with.

A few days earlier, he had been arrested for intoxication. In June, he was arrested twice — once for public urination, once for intoxication. In May, he had been arrested for violating the same protective order for showing up drunk at his ex-wife’s home. Earlier that month he had been busted again for intoxication.

In March, he was again arrested for being drunk. A few days earlier, police had been called because he was passed out in front of a Millcreek home, a bottle of vodka and a gram of marijuana in his pocket.

You get the idea. In all, he has been booked into jail 123 times, almost all of them for minor offenses — save a domestic violence charge in 2017 that resulted in the protective order. He has spent 2,224 days of his 47 years behind bars. Let me do the math for you: That’s a little more than six years.

I’m not going to name this guy, because he’s not all that unique. He’s one of a group of individuals — called “high utilizers” or “frequent flyers” — that churn through the legal system. As of Friday, 24 inmates at the Salt Lake County jail had been booked more than 50 times each.

These revolving-door cases pose unique challenges.

“Our system is just not designed to help the complicated needs of all people,” said Shawn McMillen, executive director of First Step House, one of the residential treatment programs the individual I mentioned had attended.

Andrew Stoddard is a prosecutor for Murray city whose office handled a few of the cases for the man jailed 123 times, and said he knows that the county lockup is not the best place for this small group of people, but they are challenging.

Stoddard said he saw one man every four to six weeks, always on an intoxication charge, who would pay the fine and then be back again. He died about six months ago from alcohol poisoning.

“The hard thing, I think, is dealing with people who don’t have any interest in trying to better their situation or don’t think there is a problem with their behavior,” said Stoddard, who is also a state legislator. “I see someone who has a hundred arrests and I know they’re not going to change. I hate to charge them a fine, because I know it won’t change their behavior, but I don’t want to send them to jail for the same reasons.”

Typically, these folks are indigent, so their cases end up with public defenders handling pretty clear-cut cases, said Richard Mauro, director of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association.

“They call them ‘high utilizers,’ but I call them our clients,” Mauro said. “In the treatment world, they have high needs, but they are pretty low-risk folks.”

But the criminal justice system isn’t really designed to help them, Mauro said, so instead of cutting a quick plea to get them out, Mauro’s office has hired eight staffers to connect clients with rehabilitation, mental health treatment and housing providers.

Salt Lake County has an extensive “intercept” program for those in the jail system, including the residential treatment programs.

“The biggest game-changer,” has been a targeted Medicaid expansion the state passed in 2017, according to Tim Whalen, director of Salt Lake County Behavioral Health Services. It allowed people leaving the jail to get Medicaid coverage and ongoing mental health or addiction treatment and brought in more resources.

Before the targeted expansion, the county had 170 residential treatment beds; now there are nearly 500, and the biggest constraint is that providers haven’t been able to hire enough therapists.

The county has other programs, too. It pairs therapists with police; it contracts with Volunteers of America to provide detox beds without having to send someone to jail; new medication treatments have shown good results, as have providing more intensive supervision for some people recently released from jail.

“Putting that level of supervision around these high-risk, high-need offenders is your best chance for good outcomes,” Whalen said.

Getting offenders into stable housing also helps, but that is nearly impossible, given the tight housing market and landlords reluctant to rent to people with criminal histories.

Despite all those efforts, the interventions often fail. Half the people who go through First Step successfully complete treatment, said McMullen, a good figure in the behavioral health world. But that also means half do not.

“For some people, they don’t have any motivation. For some people, they’ve given up hope that their life could be any different,” McMillen said.

That point was driven home in a July 2018 letter the ex-wife of the man I mentioned at the start wrote to the judge after another arrest, pleading to get her former spouse help. It’s heartbreaking.

“When [he] gets out he has nothing to look forward to. He is homeless … dealing with his mental illness. He has severe anxiety and depression, he has no type of family support,” she wrote.

His grandfather had died last time he was in jail and his grandmother, who had raised him when he wasn’t in foster homes, didn’t have much time left (she died a few weeks later and he got out of jail for the day to attend her funeral).

“I will always wish the best for him. Because I know and I’ve seen the type of person he can be, very kind, giving, compassionate,” she wrote. “I was hoping that maybe there was some kind of way he can get the opportunity to get the help he needs so when he does get out he’s not dealing with homelessness, mental illness, alcoholism, so he can learn some of the tools that will benefit him in life instead of always being incarcerated, locked away [and] he has something to look forward to instead of living on the streets.”

These situations are complex and frustrating and can leave people feeling hopeless.

However, Whalen with Salt Lake County has hope — even for a guy who has been booked into jail more than 100 times. He’s seen treatment work, though for some it takes five or six attempts, and it’s the successes that keep people in his business from burning out.

“There’s too many cool stories,” he said, “where people, family members or friends finally see it catch and can turn it around and go on to have a very rich and meaningful life.”