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

The Huntsman Mental Health Institute in Research Park in Salt Lake City is pictured on Nov. 4, 2019. Jean Welch Hill, the Salt Lake County's new Criminal Justice Initiatives director, says the criminal justice system needs to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment.
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The Huntsman Mental Health Institute in Research Park in Salt Lake City is pictured on Nov. 4, 2019. Jean Welch Hill, the Salt Lake County’s new Criminal Justice Initiatives director, says the criminal justice system needs to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Jean Welch Hill has spent years advocating 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 the issue.

Hill will be part of an ongoing push for more collaboration between governmental agencies at the city, county and state levels working together to find solutions. Issues like homelessness, crime and mental health are often related, she said, and it will take a lot of effort from all parties to make significant strides in the right direction.

“Homelessness is not an issue that happens in a vacuum,” Hill said. “Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are reasons crime happens and there are reasons homelessness happens, and a lot of those reasons involve mental health issues as well. So yeah, there’s great collaboration happening and I expect to see more moving forward .”

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

“One of the most pressing issues in Salt Lake County is to advance solutions that will move individuals successfully 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 do, and Jean is more than up to the task.”

Wilson said the criminal justice system is “as complex a system as we deal with at 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 are trying to do so without being overly punitive — especially toward offenders who suffer from substance abuse or serious mental illness.

Ending the cycle

Hill is well aware of the careful balance that needs to be struck within the criminal justice system and believes there should be more 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 time in jail or prison, which in turn makes it even more difficult to find a job or stable housing.

She believes a different approach would not just help offenders but would 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 we better serve individuals with serious mental health issues — who cannot and should not be served in jail — but also have been doing some things that cause issues for public safety, “she said. “A lot of work is being done to address what happens when someone leaves jail and doesn’t have a home to go to. And how do we keep people from cycling between homelessness and the criminal justice system?”

“In doing so — in the process of stopping that cycle — we can also stop some of the criminal activity that is based essentially in poverty,” she continued. “Can we better help meet people’s needs so that they aren’t committing crimes just out of the desperation of having no access to food or clothing or housing?”

Hill said the state has already taken important steps toward this end, including the so-called “Clean Slate” law, which went into effect earlier this year and allows many people with minor criminal offenses to have their records expunged automatically. The county has also worked to make similar changes, which ensure people “are not perpetually punished for those dumb things that they might have done when they were younger … so we’re not making it less likely that they can succeed in the future ,” she said.

Crime can often be a hot-button political issue Hill acknowledged, but said much of the conversation is misguided and often doesn’t take into account solutions that don’t involve lengthy prison terms for offenders. She disagrees with this approach, in most cases, and said those solutions ignore the fact that prison often doesn’t provide true rehabilitation.

“It’s very easy to come up with soundbites about homelessness and criminal justice that are not helpful,” she said. “Such as, you’re not tough on crime if you’re not just incarcerating people. And the reality is, incarceration may look good immediately, but in the long term there are not folks for whom incarceration is going to be the solution that protects public safety, because the majority of people in prison are coming out. And if we’ve done 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 to see people focus less on punishment as the goal, because the goal should be “restoring that person and the community they harmed.”

More options for offenders, law enforcement

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

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

The Salt Lake County Jail is the institution with the largest population of people with mental illness in the state, he added.

“For far too long, people with mental illness have been relegated to two options: jail or an emergency room,” Eliason said.

The temporary receiving 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 who are experiencing mental health crises where professional help is available.

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

What’s next?

Hill praised the funding for the temporary receiving center but acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done in the long run. She believes there is a lot that needs to be done to change the perception of those with mental illness, as well as more work to address the underlying causes in the long term.

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

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

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