Editor’s note: This is part four of a five-part series addressing homelessness.

Recidivism, the rate at which an individual returns to incarceration, has increased alarmingly in Utah over the past 10 years, hitting 67% in 2021 — the majority of those individuals suffer from mental health disabilities. A person who has been incarcerated more than once is 13 times more likely to experience homelessness.

In response to these sobering realities, some have concluded the best approach is to reduce enforcement of and consequences associated with the types of laws that commonly affect those experiencing chronic homelessness, such as illegal drug use and human trafficking. But sadly, the results of these well-intentioned efforts have been more disastrous. Engulfed in the addiction and confusion created by drug use, and traumatized by the effects of sexual and other physical abuse, our most vulnerable have been pushed into even deeper despair of debilitating trauma. Chronic homelessness, accompanied by devastating pain and hopelessness, has skyrocketed in Utah and elsewhere.

Fortunately, the options for effective criminal justice are not binary — choosing between enforcement or nonenforcement. To best support our most vulnerable population, criminal justice reform must focus on the true objective: the long-term improvement of human conditions and behavior. In doing so, we blend care and rehabilitation with appropriately increased accountability and expectations.  

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An example of how this can work effectively can be found in Miami-Dade County, Florida, where for the past 20 years, leaders and stakeholders have implemented an approach referred to as the Sequential Intercept Model. The county began by evaluating data to understand that a small group of the same people were constantly rotating in and out of the ER, shelters, jails and the streets. This dangerous cycle not only intensified the trauma these individuals were suffering but also exhausted critical social resources. 

In response, service providers and stakeholders from the criminal justice system collaborated on several vital and connected initiatives. First, police officers received 40 hours of specialized training on psychiatric diagnosis, behavioral deescalation and the role of family care in helping those with mental health challenges. 

Second, increased numbers of social workers began to accompany law enforcement. 

Third, rather than condoning or ignoring injurious behavior, accountability was sustained but refocused, as individuals were instead presented with the option to seek personalized mental health care rather than incarceration. Unsurprisingly, over 80% chose to accept help recovering rather than returning to jail. 

Finally, individuals were retained in long-term, comprehensive, in-patient care for sufficient time to help each person stabilize and begin experiencing meaningful improvement. Individuals then graduated to community-based health programs to help them sustain their personalized medical and emotional care regimens while increasing their independence.  

The results for those who chose recovery were dramatic — annual recidivism dropped from 75% to 20% — and the number of individuals seeking and experiencing improvement along the continuum of care improved threefold.

Applying similar programs that track and report on outcomes, rather than mere activities, can be propelled in the state of Utah’s upcoming legislative session. Efforts began several months ago when Gov. Spencer Cox declared that solving homelessness is his top legislative priority in 2024. He followed by inviting local government, education, business and philanthropic leaders to work with him in designing a strategy for legislative investment that will smartly focus on achieving improved human dignity. The result is a proposed budget that identifies the actual needs and interventions that will be required to achieve our collective goal of making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring.

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In addition to the governor’s budget proposals, the legislature should strive to incorporate these collaborative recommendations: 

  • Incentivize rapid intercept and diversion models that consistently and humanely enforce laws while providing access to coordinated, accountable care and rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration. 
  • Establish pay-for-performance programs that provide a) short-term, community-based health facilities where those being diverted from jail can become stable, and b) long-term, in-patient care programs to help those willing to recover and heal. These initiatives will require a change in law that allows for sustained in-patient care.
  • Fund technological innovations to track and support individuals by name with customized care plans while significantly increasing the number of behavioral health care providers through incentives to higher education and innovation in state licensure requirements.
  • Policy changes that help individuals reintegrate into society as they continue healing and maintain improvement. Potential changes include rewarding successful completion of long-term care and continued behavioral progress with criminal record expungement as well as changing current city ordinances to encourage rather than obstruct landlords from renting to these individuals.

We best help individuals recover not by choosing between care or accountability. Instead, by combining the two, we empower individuals with greater human dignity and curb the growing number experiencing debilitating pain and hopelessness. 

Please go to www.utah-impact.org to engage with other Utahns committed to helping those experiencing homelessness.

Randy Shumway is the founder and chairman of the Cicero Group, the treasurer of the Utah Impact Partnership and the co-chair of the Utah Homeless Council.