OGDEN -- About this time next month, a mental health court will be operating in the 2nd District Courthouse in Ogden to give therapy a chance over incarceration.
The court will be among the growing number of specialized courts no longer considered experimental as they've taken hold throughout Utah the past 10 years. They offer alternatives to being locked up for those who might benefit from treatment and counseling.
Ogden's would be the fourth mental health court in the state, officials said. It was approved March 9 by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
Salt Lake, Cache and Davis counties also have mental health courts.
Once under way in mid-April, the Ogden Mental Health Court will meet every Monday afternoon before 2nd District Judge Noel Hyde.
"The need is very high," said Jed Burton, clinical director with Weber Human Services, which will staff the court.
"We have a lot of mentally ill people in jails and prisons who really, with some treatment and a little supervision, would be able to function in society."
"We have plenty of people who are just criminals who have made that choice," said Weber County Attorney Dee Smith, who has signed on to be the prosecutor for the mental health court.
"But there is a population out there that is untreated and unmedicated, that behaves irrationally. We need to bring them some stability.
"I think it's important for the community, and I think it will lower the crime rate," said Smith, who spent five years as the public defender assigned to Davis County's drug court.
The specialty courts use the threat of jail time as motivation along with the promise of dismissal of criminal charges upon graduation from the programs, which last a year or more.
The judge in an alternative court is empowered like a super-probation officer, able to jail a "client" or defendant on the spot for missing counseling appointments or testing positive for drug use, for example.
Burton estimated one-third of those behind bars have a diagnosable mental illness.
In many of those cases, Burton said, they are simply individuals "without the funding to pay for their own treatment. They end up breaking the law, get caught up in the criminal justice system and stay there for the rest of their lives."
While prisons designed for long-term inmates do have some treatment opportunities, county jails rarely do, he said.
Weber Human Services has two clinicians assigned to Weber County Jail, with offices there, Burton said. With a jail population of about 1,000, "they are just doing crisis intervention. Putting out fires instead of providing ongoing treatment is a good way to describe it."
Jail inmates' typical stay is months, not years, as in prison.
"When they leave the jail, (they) go back to no treatment or intervention of any kind," Burton said.
The mental health court is only for nonviolent and nonsexual offenders. The typical array of diagnosis officials expect to see most often includes depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
"Statistics show offenders with mental illness are not more dangerous, just more unpredictable," said Weber County Sheriff's Lt. Mark Lowther, one of the organizers who has been working to get the mental health court parties together for over a year.
It's something that has been talked about in 2nd District Court in Ogden for as long as five years, started by Judge Roger Dutson, who retired more than two years ago. Dutson was one of the pioneers for drug court here, an alternative court for addicts.
Lowther said referrals to drug court can start with an arresting officer but will likely most often come from defense attorneys.
"But even a family member can call us," he said.
The final decision on a diversion to mental health court will be made by the judges involved.