Utahns Say Mentally Ill Inmates Need Treatment, Not More Jail Time

September 10, 2015

By Cristina Flores

Salt Lake County just completed a year-long study of people who flow through the criminal justice system – including the county jail. The study found that mentally ill inmates are not consistently getting the treatment they need and are spending too much time in jail waiting for such help. The study also found that the mentally ill are more likely to return to jail.

“These are people sitting at the jail at the expense of the taxpayer, when what they need is treatment and to be re-integrated into the community,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.

The study, conducted by The Council of State Governments Justice center, found that there is not a good system in place to identify those inmates with mental illnesses. The CSG recommends development of a system to better identify mentally ill inmates and that when those inmates leave the jail, they have an appointment to get immediately connected to mental health services.

The lack of mental health services is a problem and in fact one of the reasons the Salt Lake County Jail and other local jails are housing mentally ill inmates who can’t proceed to trial because they are not competent mentally.

In a separate effort, The Disability Law Center in Salt Lake filed a lawsuit on behalf of Utah mentally-ill inmates who are being held for months at local jails while they wait for treatment at the State Hospital which is full.

“In essence, they are doing jail time based on the fact that they are mentally ill, ” said Aaron Kinikini, Director of the Disability Law Center.

Kinikini said the long waits in jail for those inmates are a violation of the constitution and state law. He said one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is 71 , mentally ill and in a wheelchair. The man has been in jail for over seven months waiting for treatment at the State Hospital.

“We don’t punish people for having cancer or diabetes. Why would mental illness be any different?” he said.

Kinikini said the lawsuit demands the State of Utah fix the problem immediately. He said other courts who have spoken on the same issue have indicated waiting hours to days for mental health treatment is ideal – not waiting months.

Kinikini said the goal is to get those inmates the help they need to restore their competence so they can face trial and pay their debt to society. After that, they can be well-enough to move on and stay out of jail.

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