The Huntsman Mental Health Institute at Research Park in Salt Lake City is pictured on Nov. 4, 2019. Jean Welch Hill, Salt Lake County’s new Criminal Justice Initiatives director, says the criminal justice system should focus more on rehabilitation than punishment. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)
Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY – Jean Welch Hill has been advocating for solutions to end homelessness and prevent gun violence for years. Now, as the new director of the Salt Lake County Office of Criminal Justice Initiatives, Hill will be on the front lines of the issue.
Hill will be part of an ongoing push for increased collaboration between city, county and state government agencies working together to find solutions. Issues such as homelessness, crime and mental health are often interrelated, she said, and it will take a lot of effort from all parties to make significant strides in the right direction.
“Homelessness is not a problem that happens in a vacuum,” Hill said. “Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are reasons why crime happens and there are reasons why homelessness happens, and a lot of those reasons also have to do with mental health issues. So yeah, great collaboration is happening and I expect more progress will be made.” .”
Hill took over the county after serving for years as 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 director of the Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, which is made up of attorneys, judges, law enforcement and elected officials.
“One of the most pressing issues in Salt Lake County is finding solutions that successfully move individuals through our homeless, mental health and criminal justice systems,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. “There are a lot of 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’re dealing with in the county,” thanks to the intersection of homelessness, substance use and mental health. While government officials have a duty to keep the public safe, she said, they also try to do so without being overly punitive — especially towards offenders who suffer from substance abuse or serious mental illness.
End the cycle
Well aware of the careful balance that needs to be struck within the criminal justice system, Hill 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 necessities can lead to crime and time in prison, which in turn makes it even more difficult to find a job or stable housing.
She believes that a different approach would not only help perpetrators, 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 to better serve people with serious mental health issues — who can’t and shouldn’t be served in prison — but also have done some things that are causing problems for public safety, ” she said. “A lot of work is being done to address what happens when someone leaves prison and has no home to go to. And how do we prevent people from cycling back and forth between homelessness and the criminal justice system?”
“By doing this – while stopping that cycle – we can also stop some of the criminal activity that is essentially based on poverty,” she continued. “Can we better help meet people’s needs so they don’t commit crimes just out of desperation that they don’t have access to food, clothing or housing?”
Hill said the state has already taken significant steps toward this, including the so-called “clean slate” law, which came into effect earlier this year and allows many people with minor offenses to have their data automatically erased. The county has also been working on similar changes, which will ensure that people “don’t get punished forever for those stupid things they may have done when they were younger…so we’re not making it any 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 fails to consider solutions that don’t involve long prison terms for offenders. She disagrees with this approach in most cases, saying those solutions ignore the fact that prison often doesn’t provide real rehabilitation.
“It’s very easy to come up with sound bites about homelessness and criminal justice that don’t help,” she said. “Like, you’re not tough on crime if you don’t just lock people up. And the reality is that incarceration might look good right away, but in the long run, there are no people for whom incarceration is going to be the solution that protects public safety, because the majority of people in prison get 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 people to focus less on punishment as a 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 itself took a major step this week by allocating $2.5 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund a temporary mental health center at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.
State Representative 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’s worked on during his time on Capitol Hill because nearly everyone on both sides of the aisle has dealt with mental health at some point in their lives.
The Salt Lake County jail is the facility 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 shelter is expected to open in April 2023 and will remain in operation until the new Kem and Carolyn Gardner Mental Health Crisis Care Center is completed in Fall 2024. experiencing mental health crises where professional help is available.
“The county is designated by the state as the mental health authority and we manage the prison, so this is a good fit,” City Councilman Aimee Winder Newton said. “This investment will not only improve mental health outcomes, but will save taxpayers’ money in the long run.”
Hill praised the funding for the temporary shelter, but acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done in the long run. She believes that much needs to be done to change the perception of people with mental illness, as well as more work to address the long-term underlying causes.
In the coming years, she hopes to see more solutions to ensure that more people have access to healthcare and housing.
“Ultimately, the ideal would be that we have specialized facilities that can address the specific needs of these populations that do not have such a treatment option and safe and stable housing options,” Hill said. “In the long run, we want to have a comprehensive system that would take people out of these systems because they now have the skills and capabilities they need to function better in our society.”