By Cathy Mckitrick
A staggering percentage of individuals held in county jails around the United States suffer from mental illness and substance use disorders.
This trend is pushing law enforcement and corrections professionals to seek better ways to treat those underlying issues in hopes of reducing the numbers of those who reoffend and get caught in the revolving door of recidivism.
A decade ago, a U.S. Department of Justice survey showed that 64.2 percent, nearly two-thirds of inmates housed in local jails, struggled with mental health problems.
“Based on what we see today, I’d say that percentage has increased to at least 70 percent, where a mental health disorder is either their primary diagnosis or one of their underlying diagnoses,” said Dr. Kay Haw, who oversees inmate health at the Weber County Jail. Haw, a registered nurse, also has a doctorate in health sciences.
On any given day, about 880 individuals are housed in Weber County’s main jail on 12th Street and its downtown work-release facility on Kiesel Avenue.
In addition to nightly Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Weber’s main jail also offers classes in life skills, relationships and female parenting, plus a new 12-step program called Moral Reconation Therapy, which is described by the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices as “a systematic treatment strategy that seeks to decrease recidivism among juvenile and adult criminal offenders by increasing moral reasoning.” Two full-time mental health counselors meet with 30 inmates each weekday for assessment, evaluation, therapy and direct care, Haw said.
“We’ve seen a rise in mental health issues not only in jail but also in the community,” Weber County Jail Chief Kevin Burton said. In other words, the jail is basically a microcosm of the larger population.
“There really is a mental health crisis. It’s troubling,” said Sgt. Lane Findlay, public information officer for the Weber County Sheriff’s Office.
According to a 2012 report from Utah’s Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, approximately 40 percent of inmates nationwide — or at least one in three — reoffend within three years. That study linked in-house substance abuse treatment and education programs to better outcomes.
Utah’s largest county in the spotlight
Representatives of the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center recently met with Salt Lake County’s Criminal Justice Advisory Council to launch an extensive analysis of Salt Lake County’s jail population, with the overall aim of reducing recidivism and addressing the growing number of inmates who struggle with mental illness and/or substance use disorders.
The study will scrutinize every facet of Salt Lake County’s justice system — from jails to courts, pretrial services, probation and community-based treatment programs. By year’s end, CSG’s Justice Center will provide recommendations on how to measure performance and will then assist CJAC in assessing performance in each area. A final report, including improvement strategies, should be released next August.
“Talk to a corrections officer in our jail and they’ll tell you that more and more people with mental health needs are entering our jail,” Sheriff Jim Winder said in a recent statement. “But we don’t have data that give us a precise description of what the mental health needs are of this population. This study will address that gap, providing us with a road map of the types of mental health services and community-based supervision the county should deliver if we’re going to improve upon our existing approach.”
Jessica Tyler, research manager for CSG’s Justice Center, told CJAC members that Salt Lake County is already head and shoulders above others in some respects.
“They’re not only accessible for extracting data, they also seem to be very accessible for inviting us in to look at their data,” Tyler said. “So we’re really excited, because this is the first county system that has had good data at every single point in this intercept.”
The study will build on current Salt Lake County efforts to improve its criminal justice system.
“Our Early Case Resolution Court has enabled us to dispose of a large collection of cases within 30 days, as opposed to the standard four to six months,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in a recent statement, adding that the project should identify policies and programs that can work with ECR to match treatments and services to the needs of those being adjudicated.
The Utah Association of Counties and National Association of Counties are also working with CSG’s Justice Center in hopes of applying lessons learned in Salt Lake County to other areas of Utah and the nation.
During Wednesday’s CJAC session, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who serves on CJAC, said he would like to see more done to address the underlying needs of inmates both inside and outside the jail.
“If it’s mental health or substance abuse, just because you didn’t commit a new crime doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on a good track,” Hutchings said. “On recidivism . . . are we providing enough resources outside the system to address those types of issues?“
The project will track crime rates, prevalence of mental and substance use disorders, average daily jail population and average length of stay, engagement in needed treatment and recidivism.
For now, seeing what works — and working together
Weber’s Sgt. Findlay credited voluntary Crisis Intervention Training for providing patrol officers with valuable tools to deal with mentally ill individuals on the streets.
”It trains them to recognize mental health issues and to come up with better solutions than dropping them off here at the jail,“ Findlay said, noting that one frequently used option is to transport someone to an area hospital instead.
Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson voiced excitement about two new programs underway in Utah’s fifth most populous county to help former inmates find that ”good track.“ While drug court and mental health court provide vital support to people working their way through the criminal justice system, both programs end at some point and the individual moves on.
”It’s been that piece that’s been missing . . . that gap in between leaving (the jail) and getting back on their feet,“ Thompson said.
Real Victory, a three-week cognitive training program rooted in Franklin Covey ideals, aims to help fill that gap, Thompson said.
”Our belief system or values drive our thinking and what we think drives our behavior,“ Thompson said. ”So the process is to help them develop a different set of values or priorities.“
With that instruction comes a free Cricket cellphone, Thompson said, equipped with software that transforms the device into a ”phone coach“ outfitted with prepackaged messages and personalized reminders from loved ones, all aimed at helping the individual stay focused on their new goals.
Also new to Utah is Weber County’s SparkPoint initiative, which launched earlier this year through Cottages of Hope, a collaborative hub of services tucked away in a strip mall near 27th Street and Washington Boulevard.
Through SparkPoint, fractured resources are brought in under one roof, ”so all an individual has to do is to get themselves through the front door,“ Thompson said.
According to Cottages of Hope Co-Director Jeremy Botelho, SparkPoint is meant to ”help ignite a fire under clients who come in and want to achieve an objective.“
The program’s primary focus is to help people build livable incomes, increase their credit scores to 650 or higher, build three months of personal savings and accumulate assets of value.
”Those are our four main objectives; everything we do here has to drive toward that. And employment is a big key,“ Botelho said.
Their target market consists of low- to moderate-income individuals, Botelho added, with most households struggling to survive on $17,000 to $18,000 annually for a family of four. The federal poverty level for a household of four is currently set at $23,850.
In addition to offering free income-tax preparation, Cottages of Hope also provides budget training, resume-writing, interviewing and job search assistance, along with computer resources and training on how to overcome barriers to housing and work that accompany having a criminal background.
Although some clients still struggle with mental and behavioral demons — the types of things that may require supervision and in some cases medication to control — Botelho said he now views ex-offenders as an untapped resource instead of a burden.
”When property filtered, there are contributing members in that population that we feel would be the tipping point that a lot of businesses and industries are needing here in the community.“ Botelho said.