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Kearns • Ben McAdams walked out of a portable classroom and into a dark Kearns Junior High School hallway Thursday afternoon after visiting youths who are part a county program for kids and teens.
The Salt Lake County mayor 's mind was what he hoped they will avoid in the future, not to mention a call to the White House.
"We can't incarcerate our way out of the problem," he said to The Salt Lake Tribune as he approached the room where he would speak on a conference call about data-driven justice reform. "We've got to learn how to help people become stable members of our society without just locking them up and turning a blind eye."
He joined Valerie Jarrett, White House senior adviser, and Knoxville, Tenn., Police Department Chief David Rausch over the phone to discuss how they've approached the issue of fixing the justice system.
Each year, 11 million people across the U.S. serve time in local jails, Jarrett said on the call. Of those people, 64 percent suffer from mental illness, 68 percent have a substance abuse disorder and 44 percent suffer from chronic health problems, according to a White House document for reporters.
In the past, the approach most leaders have taken is to lock up criminals, even if their offenses were minor, McAdams said in the hallway before the call, but the criminal justice system is "evolving" as more government agencies opt for treatment over incarceration for people who are mentally ill, have committed low-level offenses or struggle with addictions.
Although the original approach was intended to keep communities safer, in some cases it did the opposite, McAdams said in the interview.
"When we take somebody and put them in jail for committing a minor offense, [they're] in an environment where they're going to be further corrupted, make bad friendships, become members of gangs, and they may ... come out with the connections and ties and 'criminogenic' behaviors that is going to further their life in crime," McAdams said before the call.
Through data-driven justice efforts, McAdams said during the call, leaders today can look for ways to amend those negative effects and do a better job of keeping people safe.
Another negative effect of jailing people who don't benefit from being there, he told listeners on the call, is that it costs tax dollars.
But the state isn't the only entity footing the bill, said Fraser Nelson, Salt Lake County director of data and innovation, in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
"If you're in the jail, and then you get fined and you can't pay ... then the next time you get arrested, you are in trouble twice as much because you've got an outstanding warrant plus an outstanding fine that only increases because you can't pay it," she said. "There are people in jail who are there because they're poor."
People with mental-health issues and those who have not yet been convicted of any crimes and aren't considered a risk to the community, Jarrett said during the call, also "simply do not need to be in our jails."
McAdams agreed, noting that community members are "falling through the cracks with terrible human outcomes."
Collaborative efforts in Utah extend to state and local levels, McAdams said, with leaders from different agencies sharing data. Some of the goals of Salt Lake County's program are to provide help before people land in jail or the emergency room, McAdams said.
But this collaboration is fairly new, Nelson said after the call, and the county is trying to overcome challenges like getting agencies to communicate, protecting privacy and breaking the cycle of perpetual incarceration.
"It turns out, about 30 percent of the people in the [homeless] shelter are cycling in and out of the jail," Nelson said. "And they're being arrested for homeless-type crimes public disorderly [conduct], vagrancy, public urination things that you have to do because you don't have a place to live."
In Salt Lake County, she said, leaders are trying to ask questions about what should be done to intervene in someone's life earlier to prevent them from falling into the cycle.