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About Utah: Mental health help on the way

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PROVO — Greg Hatch, a man battling schizophrenia whose plight was introduced in this column two weeks ago by his concerned brother, Brad, is still sitting on the porch of the shack he inhabits in West Provo. He still gives the finger to everyone passing by. Make that both fingers. He is still a problem to the neighbors, the community, his family and himself.

But hope, if not help just yet, has emerged.

After hearing of Greg's problems, Utah County Commissioner Jerry Grover stepped forward with some timely news:

Within the next month, Utah County plans to implement a Mental Health Court that would offer treatment to qualified defendants as an alternative to jail time.

A variety of government officials and agencies are involved in the project, starting with the county commission and including Wasatch Mental Health, the prosecutor's office, the public defender's office, the jail and the courts. The Mental Health Court is scheduled to be a part of 4th District Judge Steven Hansen's court, with the judge's personal endorsement and approval.

"We think this is long overdue," says Grover, who notes that the county commission is in charge of overseeing mental health care for the county. "The jail is not a very good mental health treatment center."

The idea of a having a special court for the mentally ill who break the law — as opposed to clear-headed crooks — is not novel to Utah County. Salt Lake County already has a Mental Health Court, run by Judge William B. Bohling, and there are several dozen such courts operating across the country. But as LaMar Eyre, executive director of Wasatch Mental Health, points out, the overall concept is still in the beginning stages. "Advances in the science and practice of treating mental illnesses have dramatically improved over the past decade and we're responding to that," he says. "The point is, mental health treatment works. I am very excited about the possibilities of this alternative to incarceration. We anticipate a significant reduction in jail time for the mentally ill."

Wasatch Mental Health will be key to making the program work by coordinating effective treatment that includes screeners, case workers, therapists, psychiatrists (medicators) and housing.

Despite the costs inherent in all of the above, Grover, ever the politician, points out that since the cost of jail time these days is more than $70 a day, taxpayers still stand to save a lot of money once the cycle of repeated incarceration for the mentally ill is broken.

What does it all mean for Greg Hatch?

It could mean a completely different life than the one he's known the past decade, a period during which he's been jailed approximately a dozen times for misdemeanors ranging from disturbing the peace to lewdness (he often urinates in public).

Brad Hatch, Greg's brother, said he plans to solicit the public defender's office about the possibility of routing Greg's case to Hansen's Mental Health Court. Two weeks ago, Greg was convicted, again, of disturbing the peace and lewdness and is awaiting sentencing. Instead of being sent off to jail, as in the past, perhaps his offenses could be looked at in the context of his mental illness and he could be treated instead of incarcerated.

Perhaps Greg Hatch could even be lucky enough to be one of Hansen's inaugural cases for the projected June 30 start of Provo's Mental Health Court.

There are no guarantees. But there is hope.

Lee Benson's column runs on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.