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The Utah Legislature has put $3 million toward an effort to stop parking far too many mentally ill people in the state's county jails for far too long.

The final cost of the still-being-written plan, which would settle a federal lawsuit against the practice, is certain to be a lot more. And even then, whatever we scare up is likely to be far from perfect, just because of the frustrating nature of treating the mentally ill.

But it was clearly a step in the right direction. And state and local officials should be aggressive about totting up the long-term benefits to government and to the community of improving services to the mentally ill.

Nobody defends the status quo. Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder is one of the more outspoken critics of a system that has no proper place to treat mentally ill people who have been accused of crimes, particularly those found to be legally incompetent to assist in their own defense.

The current situation is "abhorrent," the sheriff said, promising to get back to us if he ever found a word strong enough to truly describe the clearly unacceptable treatment of some of our community's most broken people.

The local Disability Law Center argues that other states manage to move mentally ill inmates from jails to treatment facilities in anywhere from seven to 30 days. But it is not uncommon in Utah for such people to be in a county jail for months — even more than a year — while waiting to be fully evaluated and then finding them a bed in a mental hospital.

Sometimes the time a suspect spends in jail waiting for treatment is longer than they time they would have spent if they had been found guilty of the offense they were originally accused of and served the requisite jail sentence.

At an average cost of $92 a day, Winder says, that's not only cruel to some very ill people, it's hard on the taxpayers.

As with the parallel efforts to provide services for the many homeless people in Salt Lake City, the solution involves much more extensive services for the mentally ill, in outreach, assessment and treatment.

That will all be expensive. And it will never solve every case.

But the benefits of the money spent, if it is spent wisely, will get the mentally ill not only out of jail, but also off the streets, away from emergency rooms, out of homeless shelters and, in enough cases to matter, off of public support altogether.

All of that promises both a fiscal and an ethical benefit to the community, as well as to the people who most need our help.

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