My Message to Utah Legislators: Treatment Makes More Financial Sense Than Incarceration!


Jamie Justice, NAMI-Utah Director; Jackie Rendo, activist; Pete; Francisca Blanc, NAMI Development Director; Azra Juillerat, past NAMI Utah President.

Jamie Justice, NAMI-Utah Director; Jackie Rendo, activist; Pete; Francisca Blanc, NAMI Development Director; Zara Juillerat, past NAMI Utah President.

2-2-15 Members of the Utah House appropriations committee were studying their computer screens and not making eye contact with me until I mentioned that I had encountered three persons the day before outside the gates of the Mormon Temple grounds in Salt Lake City who were panhandling.

“Do you know how much NOT  helping those three is costing you?” I asked during my hurried seven minutes of testimony.

I explained that after my book was published, the University of South Florida’s Mental Health Institute followed 97 individuals in Miami who were chronically homeless, had mental illnesses, and co-occurring drug and alcohol problems. Over a five year period, those 97 individuals were arrested 2,200 times, spent 27,000 days in jail and another 13,000 days in crisis stabilization units, state hospitals and emergency rooms. They cost the community $13 million with absolutely NO reduction in recidivism or recovery.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness-Utah had invited me to speak at a legislative breakfast because the Utah legislature had convened last week and was considering two major pieces of legislation. One involved building a new prison and the other adopting a Utah version of the Affordable Care Act. After the breakfast, the chairman of the appropriations committee invited me to testify before his committee.

Elected leaders are used to hearing stories about the need for increased funding for various social programs. Mental illness and addictions always end up at the back of the line. I’ve found that appealing to politicians (especially those on appropriations committees) on moral grounds is ineffective. Every worthwhile group has its hands out. That’s why I always talk about how states could be saving money by improving community based services.

Utah is representative. According to the Utah Department of Corrections, the annual cost of keeping an inmate in a state prison is roughly $30,000. There are roughly 1,200 prisoners in state custody who have been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar and schizophrenia. Simple math tells us that those 1,200 prisoners are costing Utah $36 million per year.

Almost half (46%) of Utah’s inmates who are released from state prisons return within three years. But the recidivism rate for someone with a severe mental illness is a whooping 85%  — nearly double the average. Plus, prisoners with mental illnesses spend three times longer in jails and prisons than other inmates. They are the fastest growing subpopulation in prisons, often are the most difficult to handle, and, studies show, their mental state actually gets worse when they are locked up so when they are released, they are in worse mental shape than when they went in.

After I explained that to the appropriations committee, I offered them an alternative. For that same $30,000 expenditure that is now going to prison, Utah could actually help those inmates with mental illnesses and addictions by providing them with community services, including Housing First and ACT teams. The LAMP Project in Los Angeles has reported recovery rates as high as 85%.

So what makes more sense: spending $36 million to continue a cycle of hopelessness and despair, or spending $36 million to actually give individuals their lives’ back?

I urged the legislators to read a report by Colorado officials who spent $3 million for improved community services and saved that state $17 million. I urged them to contact Leon Evans in Bexar County Texas where officials were considering building a new jail, but instead spent funds on community services and now have a 1,000 jail bed surplus and are saving $3 million a year that used to go to inappropriate emergency room admissions and unnecessary incarceration.

Thankfully, I was not the only witness who spoke to Utah legislators about how spending money on treatment rather than punishment makes good fiscal sense.

“Eighty percent of all crimes involve some underlying drug or alcohol problem,” Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant told Utah legislators. He said Utah’s mental health courts that divert prisoners into treatment programs have a proven record of reducing recidivism. Unfortunately, Durrant said, “We estimate that more than fifty percent of those who would otherwise qualify for drug court cannot be admitted because, without our being able to provide them with treatment, there is no point to the drug-court process.” Durrant was echoing what I preach. You can have the best mental health court in the nation, but it won’t be effective if there is no treatment available in a community.

I felt hopeful flying home.  Utah has a $638 million surplus because of a booming economy and conservative spending. The financial facts that I cited should appeal to fiscally responsible legislators. Because of the dominance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the state also has a history of caring for those in need.

I was optimistic when flying home for another reason. After spending nine years visiting and hearing about how  “problem solving” courts have been helping save money and reduce recidivism in other states, I was returning to Fairfax County knowing that it will soon institute a “problem solving” veterans docket. I’ll write more later about the Veterans Treatment Docket that will be launched February 12 and the hard work and leadership that has gone into getting it started. But I am delighted that Fairfax will be helping veterans rather than punishing them.

Hallelujah !

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.