Chief justice: Jail and prisons are our states’ new de facto mental institutions

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – Utah’s criminal justice system has become a revolving door for people suffering from mental health facilities, according to the state’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, Matthew B. Durrant.

“Jail and prisons are our states, our countries new de facto mental institutions.  We house more people suffering from a mental illness than do our state funded mental hospitals, so that presents enormous challenges.”

The chief justice made these remarks to both the Utah House and Senate on Monday during his annual State of the Judiciary Address.

With mental illness being an “enormous challenge” to Utah courts, Durrant says a treatment-based alternative to incarceration for some offenders, would help solve the issue.

Utah Representative Sandra Hollins (D-Salt Lake City) says Durrant’s remarks are a step in the right direction.

“I absolutely agree with him. Our jail system and our criminal justice system is not the place for those that are severely mentally ill. We need to start looking at how we treat individuals in our state who are severely mentally ill and who are ending up homeless.”

Utah Representative Steve Eliason is running a bill this legislative session that would allow people with a substance abuse or mental health issue, who commit a small crime, to be taken to a receiving center to get medical help, instead of going to a jail or a hospital.

“It’s just a point of entry for someone,” explained Representative Raymond Ward (R-Bountiful), who supports Eliason’s bill. “When the police go, they get called out for a call, and they go out and find that yes, a crime has been committed, and it’s a relatively minor crime, but as they get there they realize, that the predominant issue here is either a substance abuse issue, mental health issue or both. Right now, their two choices are take you to jail or take you to the emergency room. But really, those folks need some kind of medical help or medical stabilization. They’re not really served either by jail or a $10,000 visit to the emergency room. But to have a place to go where they can be medically stabilized, find out if they needed and are willing to get help with their substance abuse, would be a great addition to our system.”

Chief Justice Durrant also called another problem to the legislature’s attention, access to justice. He said there’s an “enormous gap” between low and middle class Utahns and many people can’t afford legal help.

“There is a crisis in this respect and enormous gap between those who need legal help and the availability of services. People simply can’t afford a lawyer. I’m not talking here about big corporate lawsuits or high stakes litigation. I’m talking about the kinds of legal problems you and I all have. They’re an inevitable part of our everyday lives. Whether it’s a property question or contract question or whether it’s some insurance claim, wills, taxes, child support, I mean, the list goes on and on. People, certainly lower income people, but also middle-income people cannot afford to get the help that would be very useful in addressing these problems.”

“People realize that the criminal justice system needs some work,” said Rep. Hollins. “We need to look at how we sentence those who are people of color, how we sentence those who are in poverty and how we sentence those who don’t have the money to be able to afford a lawyer. We need to look at all of that, and this is a great start.”

Durrant concluded his speech by asking for an additional $1.2 million in ongoing funds and $450,000 in one-time funds for technology upgrades and to hire new IT professionals to address a “10-year backlog.”

“The state of the judiciary is strong. You can see that I’m a big fan of the judiciary. But we hope to get even better,” said Durrant.

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