ST. GEORGE – Recently a study ranked Utah first among states for diverting people with health issues away from jail through the use of mental health courts and specially-trained police officers. While still relatively young in Southern Utah, advocates say the mental health court is breaking cycles of recidivism and getting people the help they need, rather than simply tossing them into a cell multiple times.
In August, the Treatment Advocacy Center released its “Mental Health Diversion Practices” report and graded Utah and Washington, D.C., with an A-plus each, followed by Arizona with an A, and New Mexico and Connecticut, each with an A-minus. One-third of the states scored Ds and Fs.
The study estimates that 87 percent of the population with mental health issues who somehow run afoul of the law are benefited in some way by the state’s mental health court.
“There’s a definite advantage we’ve found” in the mental health court, said Shari Lindsey, adult program manager at the Southwest Behavioral Health Center. “We’ve had people that were arrested for … things that have a lot more to do with mental illness then criminal behavior.”
As for people repeatedly being sent to jail, Lindsey said: “We’ve broken that cycle – it’s been a huge change.”
The mental health court serving Washington County is presided over by Fifth District Court Judge John Walton. It is held each Monday at the Fifth District Courthouse. Also in attendance are representatives from the Southwest Behavioral Health Center and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Sitting on the sidelines, they advise and update the judge as needed concerning particular defendants.
“The judge tries to do things that are appropriate when dealing with people with mental illness,” Lindsey said. The judge will send someone to jail, she said, but only if it helps and is deemed necessary. “We make divisions in the court based on what will help the mental health (of the defendant).”
“The idea is to get help and treatment,” Carl Mangum, also a case manger at SBHC, previously told St. George News.
Another way in which the mental health court is different is that it is somewhat informal nature. While all is typically serious in the courtroom, when a participant in the court is found to be getting treatment and doing well, people literally applaud their efforts.
“It’s very laid back,” Mangum said. “There’s a lot of applause. People like to celebrate one another’s success.”
The mental health court came about thanks to a collaboration between NAMI, SBHC, the Washington County Attorney’s Office and various law enforcement agencies, Lindsey said, and has been running in its current form since 2011.
One of the major players in helping to get the mental health court formed was the St. George Police Department, Mangum said. Many officers were seeing repeat offenders with mental health issues and figured there had to be a better way than taking them to Purgatory to help them, Mangum said.
Another category that Utah leads in, according to the Advocacy Treatment Center’s report, is its Crisis Intervention Team policing. More commonly called CIT training, it enables an officer to recognize signs of mental illness, how best to deal with it, what local resources are available to help address the issue, and so on.
The report stated that Utah’s CIT policing serves 97 percent of the target population.
“Through this training and their own on-the-job experience, CIT police officers become mental health specialists,” the report states. “When an apparent mental health-related incident arises in the community, the department’s CIT Unit is dispatched to the scene. Over time, CIT officers come to know many of the mentally ill community members they serve and develop bonds of trust.”
“It’s a big push in Utah,” St. George Police Sgt. Sam Despain said. “St. George Police is no exception.”
Every St. George Police officer is required to have CIT training, Despain said.
Washington County is one of 21 counties across the state that operates a CIT program. More information abour the CIT program can be found on the CIT Utah website.
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