One thing both public defenders and librarians have in common is addressing major societal challenges that fall outside their normal job descriptions. This is true across the nation and right here in Salt Lake City. As a public defender who has practiced in multiple jurisdictions, I have seen evidence of this trend time and time again.
Issues that are pervasive in our communities — such as mental health, substance addiction and homelessness — often show up at the courthouse or library doorstep. These institutions are often the only available resources to address serious and chronic problems related to health care and housing. This is evidence of a broken system that fails to make common sense considerations for its most vulnerable populations.
For example, one of my clients had to choose between asking for release to probation or going to prison. This should not be a complicated choice. But for my client, it meant the difference between receiving life-saving cancer treatment while in prison or not receiving any treatment on probation. Health care to save her life was only accessible in the criminal legal system, which is sadly normal for people who are poor. I also had clients whose first opportunity to address their mental health and substance issues was through social workers in my office. Health care should not be prefaced with: “Go directly to jail, do not pass go.”
A substantial portion of criminal cases have a foundation on unstable or virtually nonexistent community support, especially when it comes to health care. Consider this: Most people with mental health issues are never involved in the criminal legal system. But police are significantly more likely to arrest someone with signs of mental health struggles than someone without those signs for the same behavior. If the first place to get mental health treatment is in jail, then it should be no surprise that incarceration is a frequent destination for our most vulnerable community members, putting them at greater risk for further harm. A more accessible health care system would help address public safety for individuals and the community alike without jail as a resource of first resort.
Librarians similarly find themselves in the role of service providers outside of their typical roles. Public libraries are frequently a place of refuge for unsheltered individuals. When homeless shelters are full, public bathrooms unavailable and weather conditions dangerous, the public library is often the only accessible space for people without shelter and without means. As a result, librarians have taken the role of social service providers and advocates for unsheltered populations. This is not new, particularly here in Salt Lake City. In fact, an essay written by the former assistant director at the Salt Lake City Public Library about his experience helping the chronically homeless became the basis for a 2018 movie titled “The Public,” starring Emilio Estevez. More recently, the Salt Lake City Public Library hired a social worker to help navigate these issues.
The influx of unsheltered individuals at public libraries often results from the criminalization of homelessness in other places. From bulldozer sweeps during homeless camp abatements to so-called “consensual encounters” with law enforcement, unsheltered individuals gather at public libraries because they are often their only safe space. Dealing with the aftermath of these encounters is so frequent that I have provided “know your rights” training to library staff to help them navigate these situations.
As a society, we have shifted the burden of health care and housing on institutions that are inherently insufficient and inadequate to address these issues. A law degree does not provide training to practice medicine, and a master’s in information science does not prepare someone for social work. Health care and housing must be accessible to Utahns before they show up in front of a judge or a circulation desk. It is fiscally and morally responsible to improve and extend the existing institutions designed to address mental health, substance addiction and homelessness. It is not only more effective and efficient, but it helps other institutions — from courtrooms to libraries — focus on their core missions.
Public services will be involved in these issues one way or the other. The least we can ask for is for responsible governance and real solutions from our leaders, as discussed in the recent Tribune editorial calling on municipal and state leaders to do more. I encourage you to speak to your local representatives about how we can start fixing this broken system, especially so our most vulnerable communities can thrive rather than survive.
Jason M. Groth is a public defender in Salt Lake County. He has also represented indigent clients in Iowa and Colorado in felony and misdemeanor cases in trial and on appeal.