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Salt Lake County is better prepared than most places to reduce the number of mentally ill people in jail, an independent report said Wednesday.
But the county still has a long way to go before it can truly say it is implementing a more humane system of keeping mentally ill or substance-abusing individuals out of jail and in treatment programs that can help them stabilize.
"It's a fiscal issue, a public- safety issue as well as a human issue," said Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit research institute that presented its findings Wednesday to the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Council, representing numerous branches of the local legal system.
As Thompson was preparing to deliver his report, based on an extensive collection of data gathered in recent months from county law enforcement agencies and courts, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, District Attorney Sim Gill and Sheriff Jim Winder issued a statement endorsing the report's findings.
"We've known for some time that we needed better data on where the gaps are in how we identify, assess, track and treat those folks who wind up in jail as the facility of last resort," McAdams said. "This study confirms that we're on the right path but that there's more to do."
There is, Thompson agreed, adding the interest displayed by county officials in finding a better approach to recidivism influenced his organization to dig deep into the mountains of data here 2.4 million records produced by seven agencies dealing with people released from the county jail between Aug. 1, 2013, and July 31, 2014.
Those records referred to 33,767 bookings. Of those, 16 percent involved people with diagnosable mental disorders.
"No county has managed to actually reduce, in a measurable way, the number of mentally ill people in jail. There isn't one we've been able to identify," Thompson told the council. "We wanted to work with a short list of counties interested in that systems-level goal. Salt Lake County vaulted to the top.
"What a caring community this is," he added. But "we do don't this with our heart but with our head."
In his analogy, the head recognizes these three areas in which Salt Lake County's current system breaks down:
• Mentally ill people stay in jail longer, and return more often, than others.
• County officials don't know if people released from jail will get the mental or behavioral-health treatment they need.
• One-third of the people let out of jail on pretrial supervision and half let out on probation violate the terms of their releases.
"That's a high failure rate and something you want to do better on," Thompson said, noting that the average length of jail stay for a mentally ill person is 46 days, compared to 22 for the general population. "That's serious money right there," he added.
"These issues are all connected," Winder said. "Our ability to identify all people with behavioral-health disorders in the jail will help us to improve their reentry into the community. … There's no piecemeal approach to this."
"We have a criminal-justice problem in the county that is not sustainable," Gill added. "This report validates what we've known are the gaps that must be addressed. We're ready, willing and able to step up to the plate and solve problems."
McAdams pointed to several pilot programs initiated by the county's behavioral-health division to address these issues, partly in response to Criminal Justice Advisory Council recommendations.
The new approach depends heavily on doing multiple risk assessments of everyone entering the jail system, and making sure the information gets to all of the pertinent agencies so that released inmates get into the right treatment programs.
Although he's convinced this approach will yield long-term savings, McAdams acknowledged that all these assessments will be "resource intensive. … Sometimes you have to spend a little to save a lot." The question of where that money will come from opened the door for Tim Wahlen, the county's behavioral-health director, to put in another plug for state approval of some sort of Medicaid expansion.
"There are millions of reasons," he emphasized, referring to the money that would flow to the county to assure these services are provided. After all, Gill added, "85 percent of the population in the jail would have direct benefits from Medicaid expansion and direct access to treatment."