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St. George • David Montoya is beaming as he stands at the podium before Judge John Walton in 5th District Court.
The 31-year-old giddily tells Walton about how he'll be starting a welding program at the Southwest Applied Technical College in a few weeks and he has another laser tattoo removal session scheduled for just a few days after.
"I'm doing awesome, man," Montoya says to both Walton and his fellow Mental Health Court participants seated in the courtroom. "And it's all because of this program. I didn't think a program could help me. I'm still sober - 90 days this week."
As his eyes crinkle with the force of his smile, you can just barely make out the faded remnants of the tattooed words "see evil" below each eye.
"You're doing most of the work, David," Walton said. "There's a lot of people here to help and support you when you need it, but you're doing most of the work and we're proud of you."
The 11 Mental Health Court participants burst into applause as Montoya returned to his seat next to his wife - an uncommon sight in most traditional court rooms.
But his future hadn't looked so bright seven years ago when he was sentenced to prison on multiple felony drug convictions by the very same judge.
A troubled past
Montoya was only 10 years old the first time he smoked weed with his father. The pair, who Montoya describes as more like friends rather than father and son, quickly escalated to harder drugs.
At 15, he was hooked on heroin and running with a local gang, the Varrio Loco Town. Anywhere was better than home where his father would regularly beat him and his siblings.
By 22, he was incarcerated in the Utah State Prison after being arrested for a series of controlled drug buys.
Being locked up didn't put an end to Montoya's downward spiral, though. The VLT still ran strong even behind bars. He was still able to get heroin and pills while still working to earn more "stripes" with the gang. With each crime he'd get more time, but that didn't matter to Montoya as getting out never seemed like a possibility.
"I was with the gangs most of my life and my time in prison trying to prove everything to everyone else," he said. "I thought I was never coming out."
With empty days ahead of him, he began covering his face, chest, back and hands with tattoos asserting his allegiance to the gang. His prison nickname, Brown Clown, was inked onto each of his hands, while his face bore his allegiance to the VLT life. His forehead read "My Evil Ways." "See No Evil" was tattooed underneath both eyes, while "Speak No Evil" was inked below his mouth.
"It's just like you never tell on nobody or whatever you see you keep to yourself," he explained. "Someone murders someone next to you and you don't say nothing."
Each time he was before the Utah Board of Pardons, he would be turned down as another tattoo was added to his body. Montoya grew more and more frustrated with the system he said made him this way.
Montoya was released after seven years in prison at the age of 29. In addition to his drug addiction, he was now facing extreme paranoia, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.
He soon began regularly using methamphetamine in an attempt to self-medicate.
"I was mental," he said. "I was hearing voices all the time. I went to all this stuff (drugs) asking why I heard all these voices and I thought these things could make it stop."
But the drugs he thought would help only made matters worse.
NEW SOLUTIONS FOR OLD PROBLEMS
Fifth District Judge John Walton saw there was a problem. Throughout his years as both a prosecutor and then a judge, he saw the same individuals with mental health issues revolving in and out of court.
"You see people in court all the time who have probably been found competent in criminal court, but yet everyone would recognize the substantial, real and very serious mental health problems that complicate their ability to live their life, be productive and stay out of the criminal system," Walton said.
Walton traveled to Salt Lake City to observe the first Mental Health Court following its launch in 2001. While the idea of this alternative court was still a relatively new at the time, Walton felt it might be the answer to the lingering question of how to help those in the criminal justice system suffering from mental health problems in southern Utah.
According to a 2015 report from the Urban Institute, more than half of all inmates in jails and state prisons suffer from mental illness. Depressive disorder is the most common at 21 percent with bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD and schizophrenia closely following, the report details.
"Only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates who suffer from mental health problems report having received mental health treatment since admission," according to the 2015 study.
Walton noted the traditional system isn't always equipped to properly handle these sort of cases. While they may be punished for the crime, any underlying mental health issues weren't always being addressed.
"In my mind, the system has been recognizing for some time that if you treat someone who is an addict like everyone else, it won't be successful," Walton explained. "We've shown that you have to treat the underlying problem. It's the same in Mental Health Court. If you treat someone with a mental health problem the same as someone who doesn't have one, you won't be successful."
The Mental Health Court was first implemented in the 5th District Court in Washington County. After seeing its initial success, Walton encouraged county officials to attempt it in Iron County as well.
"We knew there was need for something more to deal with mental illness than what he had," Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett said. "We rallied together as a community with help from the Cedar City Police Department, Southwest Mental Health, Judge Walton and the court. We came together and put this program together and got it started."
All they needed was their first participant.
GETTING HELP INSTEAD OF JAIL TIME
Less than a year out of prison, Montoya was arrested again.
CCPD arrested him after he walked out of a local grocery store with a handful of items without paying for them in April 2015.
"I wasn't really on my pills anymore," he recounted. "I quit taking my psychotic pills. I just got off my pills, went in the store and took stuff."
But instead of returning to prison, Montoya was considered for the first Mental Health Court participant in Iron County. Southwest Behavioral Health Center screened the then 29-year-old to determine if he fit the necessary criteria to participate. Typically, most MHC participants must be diagnosed with a qualifying mental illness, including bipolar disorder, PTSD or depression as they tend to respond best to medication.
While Montoya met the criteria, multiple members of law enforcement and the legal community expressed some skepticism about him due to his violent past and repeat offenses.
"They really questioned whether he could be successful at this," Duane Jarvis, Iron County Mental Health Program manager for the Southwest Behavioral Health Center, said. "Previously, he had been kind of a scary dude."
The Iron County Attorney's Office had dealt with Montoya multiple times in the past - they even sent him to prison.
"What we've learned and what numbers suggest is that these courts are designed for high-risk, high-need people and that certainly fits David's category," Garrett said. "These are the exact people these courts are designed to help."
WHAT IT TAKES TO REHABILITATE
Montoya was enrolled in phase one as the inaugural participant in the Iron County Mental Health Court. In the initial phase, he was required to undergo weekly drug tests and comply with a 9 p.m. curfew. He was also required to meet with his mental health counselor, Jarvis, on a regular basis in addition to attending MHC twice a month. Some participants also attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and further counseling through the National Alliance on Mental Illness support group based on their individual needs.
"It's about making sure these people don't fall through the cracks and doing everything we can to help them," Jarvis said.
VETARANS COURT TRIES TO BREAK PTSD-CRIME CYCLE
Sobriety didn't come easily though. Montoya admits that he was still using the first few months he was participating in the program. He was even stashing drugs in his house when his baby daughter was born eight months ago. The CCPD tracker for MHC allegedly found heroin, THC wax and drug paraphernalia during a search of his vehicle in July 2016, according to court documents.
Both Garrett and Walton acknowledged that relapses are an unfortunate part of the rehabilitation process. While stabilizing their mental health issues and recovering from drug addictions are major goals, they're a distant one, Walton said. Instead, the initial focus is on proximal goals, such as showing up to court and treatment.
"We tend to sanction those higher than drug use at first because we don't immediately expect them to be on top of their mental health problems, but we do expect them to show up and be honest," Walton said. "If they use, particularly early on, we'll probably sanction that, but likely at a lower level than not showing up. We're focusing on the long term, as opposed to the right now."
STAYING CLEAN AND MOVING ON
After nearly a year in phase one of the MHC program, Montoya has now been clean for 90 days.
He recently pleaded guilty to the drug charges as part of plea in abeyance. Both the theft and drug charges will be dropped upon completion of the MHC. Garrett explained this is the best incentive for participants to complete the program. The plea in abeyance is revoked and the individual would be sentenced on the initial charges if they were to fail to complete MHC.
But a major part of sobriety for Montoya meant leaving behind his gang past. Last year, he began the lengthy and painful process of having all of his gang affiliated tattoos laser removed. The tattoo removal is free through a program with the Salt Lake Area Gang Project. As of March, he's had more than $80,000 worth of tattoo removal. Most of the tattoos on his face have been removed entirely. Next they'll focus on the ink on his hands, chest, neck and back.
Since he began the removal process, he's noticed a significant difference in the way he's treated when in public. Before, people would stare. On numerous occasions, Montoya said parents would grab their kids when he walked past. The constant stares only exacerbated his paranoia.
Now, they look at him like a normal person again.
"It's just not me anymore," he said in reference to his tattoos. "It really hurts, but it's worth being sober."
Montoya, who was recently promoted to phase two in MHC, is now focused on being a good father to his 8-month-old daughter and a supportive husband to his wife, Bri. Staying sober didn't get any easier; he just became focused on the things that really mattered following the birth of his baby.
While the past few years have been tough on the small family, Bri said seeing the difference in her husband has been well worth the effort.
"We get along better when he's sober," she said. "He gets along better with the baby when he's sober. I tell him all the time that when he's sober and when he's using it's like he's two different people."
RESOURCES FOR CHANGE
As the MHC program grows to accept more participants, Montoya has almost moved into a counselor role. He regularly encourages others to reach out to him if they feel like using or are struggling. This has been the biggest change as he's now encouraging many of the people he used to get high with to stay clean.
His work isn't over yet though. While he still has a few phases left in MHC, Montoya plans to start studying welding at the Southwest Applied Technical College shortly. Ultimately, he hopes to get a job to be able to support his family instead of relying on a government-provided income.
"What changed me is this program," he said. "Talking to Duane every week. Going to school. Seeing what I can have and what I can do when I am sober. Being able to buy a brand-new car seat for my daughter. It's just amazing what I can do now without doing drugs and now that I'm getting my mind straightened out."
He credits MHC for providing him with the necessary resources to battle his addictions and gain control of his mental illness.
It also helps that everyone is rooting for him along the way.
"We see David married and trying to be a good husband and trying to be a good father, and we just cross our fingers and hope that he can keep it up and can be successful," Garrett said. "We all want him to be successful. We want everyone who comes into the mental health court to be successful."
Information from: The Spectrum, http://www.thespectrum.com