How Salt Lake County plans to fight homelessness and improve mental health in the long term

The Huntsman Institute for Mental Health at Research Park in Salt Lake City is pictured on Nov. 4, 2019. Gene Welch Hill, Salt Lake County’s new director of criminal justice initiatives, says the criminal justice system should focus more on rehabilitation than punishment. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY – For years, Jean Welch Hill has advocated for solutions to end homelessness and prevent gun violence. Now, as the new director of Salt Lake County’s Office of Criminal Justice Initiatives, Hill will be on the front lines of this issue.

Hill will be part of an ongoing push for more collaboration between city, county and state government agencies working together to find solutions. Issues like homelessness, crime and mental health are often linked, she said, and it will take a lot of effort on all sides to make significant steps in the right direction.

“Homelessness is not an issue that happens in a vacuum,” Hill said. “Crime does not happen in a vacuum. There are reasons why crime happens and there are reasons why homelessness happens, and many of those reasons include mental health issues. So yes, great collaboration is happening and I expect to see more steps forward. .

Hill took over the county post after years of working as director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. She started working for the county earlier this month, where she also serves as director of the Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, which is made up of attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers and elected officials.

“One of the most pressing issues in Salt Lake County is advancing solutions that successfully move individuals through our homeless, mental health and criminal justice systems,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. There are many opportunities and a lot of work to be done, and Jean is more than up to the task,” he says.

Wilson said the criminal justice system is “a complex system that we deal with in the county,” thanks to the intersection of homelessness, substance use and mental health. While public officials have a duty to keep the public safe, she said, they also try to do so without being overly punitive — especially toward offenders who suffer from substance abuse or serious mental illness.

Completion of the cycle

Hill is aware of the careful balance that must be struck in the criminal justice system and believes more needs to be done to address the root causes of homelessness and mental illness. For many, poverty or lack of access to basic needs can lead to crime and jail or prison, which in turn makes it difficult to find work or stable housing.

She believes a different approach will not only help criminals, but improve public safety in the long run by keeping people out of desperate situations that can sometimes lead to crime.

“Some of the things we’re looking at right now are figuring out how to better serve individuals with serious mental health issues — who can’t and shouldn’t be incarcerated — but have also done some things that cause public safety issues . ” she said. “A lot of work is being done to address what happens when someone leaves prison and has no home to go to.

“By doing that – in the process of stopping that cycle – we can also stop some of the criminal activity that is fundamentally based in poverty,” she continued. “Can we better help meet people’s needs so that they don’t commit crimes simply because of the desperation of not having access to food, clothing or housing?”

Hill said the state has already taken important steps toward that goal, including the so-called “Clean Slate” law, which went into effect earlier this year and allows many people with minor crimes to have their records automatically expunged. The district has also been working to make similar changes, making sure people “aren’t being punished over and over again for those stupid things they might have done when they were younger … so we don’t make it less likely that they can succeed in the future,” she said.

Crime can often be a hot political issue Hill acknowledged, but said much of the conversation is misguided and often doesn’t consider solutions that don’t involve lengthy prison sentences for offenders. She disagrees with this approach, in most cases, and said those solutions ignore the fact that prison often does not provide real rehabilitation.

“It’s very easy to come up with sound bites about homelessness and criminal justice that aren’t helpful,” she said. “You’re not being tough on crime if you’re not just locking people up.” And the reality is that incarceration may look good right away, but in the long run there are no people for whom incarceration is going to be a solution that protects public safety, because the majority of people in prison get out. And if we did nothing but punish them, they’re not going to come out of those facilities and be ready to suddenly be a different person.”

Hill said she would like people to focus less on punishment as the goal, because the goal should be “rehabilitation of that person and the community that they have harmed.”

More options for offenders, law enforcement

The Salt Lake County Council took a big step this week, allocating $2.5 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund a temporary mental health intake center at Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

State Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, spoke to the council before they approved the funding Tuesday. He said it’s one of the most bipartisan issues he’s worked on during his time on Capitol Hill, because nearly everyone on both sides of the aisle has been affected by mental health at some point in their lives.

The Salt Lake County Jail has the largest population of mentally ill people in the state, he added.

“For too long, people with mental illness have been put at two options: jail or the emergency room,” Eliason said.

The interim intake center is scheduled to open in April 2023 and will operate until the new Kem and Carolyn Gardner Mental Health Crisis Care Center is completed in the fall of 2024. The center will provide a safe place for law enforcement officers to bring those experiencing mental health crises where professional help is available.

“The county is designated as a mental health authority by the state, and we run the jail, so this is good,” said County Counsel Amy Winder Newton. “This investment will not only improve mental health outcomes, but also save taxpayer dollars in the long run.”

What’s next?

Hill praised the funding for the temporary drop-in center but acknowledged there is more work to be done in the long term. She believes there is much more to be done to change the perception of those with mental illness, as well as more work to address the root causes in the long term.

In the coming years, she hopes to see more solutions to ensure more people have access to health care and housing.

“Ultimately, the ideal would be to have specialized facilities that can meet the special needs of these populations that are without that kind of treatment option and safe and stable housing options,” Hill said. “In the long term, we want to have a comprehensive system that moves people out of these systems because they now have the skills and capacities they need to function more appropriately for our society.”

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