Criminal justice burdened by failure of mental health system

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series that highlights how the mental health system impacts the criminal justice system. The next part will run in an upcoming issue of the Messenger.


Failures in the mental health system are placing an undue burden on the criminal justice system, says Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels.

During his career as a prosecutor, Daniels says he has seen a frustrating number of crimes come across his desk that could have been prevented or mitigated if more support had been available for people suffering from mental illness.

When people with serious mental health issues such as schizophrenia are arrested for destructive or criminal behavior, the action kicks off a cycle that saps the individual, the court system and the correctional system, Daniels says.

The individual suffers from getting sucked into the criminal justice system in many of the same ways that people without major mental health problems suffer—incarceration, legal fees, etc. But too often and due to a mental health system that is underfunded and often ineffective, many people suffering from mental illness have even higher recidivism than other defendants, Daniels says.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officers face more risk when the attempt to arrest and detain people suffering from severe mental health problems.

“I am pretty safe in here where I work, but law enforcement is out there risking their lives,” Daniels says.

Families get torn apart, individuals turn to substance abuse and self-medication, and people die, sometimes by their own hand, all because of the inability of the mental health system to provide vital support to people who are ill.

The criminal justice system, especially in a small, rural county like Sanpete, struggles to bear the weight of this burden, but it essentially has no other choice, Daniels says.

One recent and extreme example is Michael Hartnell, who is accused of murdering his step father in Indianola on June 1 and turning himself in the same day.

Hartnell had reached out to authorities in advance of the murder asking for help for what Daniels says was schizophrenia and violent impulses that came with it.

“He had actually sought out help on multiple occasions while living in others areas and was denied it,” Daniels says. “It’s next to impossible for someone who is really bad off to seek out and receive mental health support in Utah, absent committing some major crime.

“Now we treat mental health through the criminal justice system itself, mostly out of necessity, because so many get to a point where they ultimately do something… You really don’t have the option to just commit yourself. You’ve got to do something that puts your health and the health of others at risk, and even then, if it’s just a threat to yourself, you don’t get help for long.”

Some time before the murder, Hartnell was living on the Wasatch Front. While there, he reached out for help. Law enforcement officers came and spoke to Hartnell, but he wasn’t detained because no crime had been committed. So he never got the help he asked for and badly needed. He ended up moving to Sanpete County, moving in with his step-father, and ultimately shooting him.

In defense of the officers, most police are given limited training to give mental health support, but there is no other system in place to respond to emergency mental health issues involving aggressive or potentially dangerous individuals.

A long-term local case involves James Smith (name changed to protect his identity), who has lived in Sanpete County all his life, mainly in Manti. He has suffered from schizophrenia for decades. And his mental illness has been the main factor in his long and violent criminal history.

Smith has been charged with violence against law enforcement officers at least a dozen times, mostly in response to their attempts to arrest him. Last year he attacked an officer with a hammer. The officer narrowly avoided a blow to the head.

Officers who have come into contact with Smith during his arrests recount a “nearly inhuman” strength, despite his small, wiry stature. During on arrest at the old Maverik in Ephraim, it took a half dozen officers to wrestle Smith to the ground and cuff him.

Typically, when Smith gets arrested, he is sent to the state hospital. He is put on meds, stabilizes and is released as stable and capable of being managed outside the institution.

But he eventually goes off the meds, his mental illness takes hold again, and the cycle of crime, including substance abuse, repeats itself. Smith does more damage to himself and the community, and the justice system handles him by the book, with the cost and risks that come with such a defendant.

“The problem here is, there’s a good [James] and a bad [James],” Daniels says. “When he is on his meds, James is actually a really nice guy. He’s pretty normal. But you can’t force medication. It’s a catch and release system right now essentially, and what do you do with that? It’s really not sustainable.”

The problem has roots in the 1960s, with “deinstitutionalization,” an effort to get patients out of mental hospitals and back into the community. The goal was to offer mental health treatment in the community on an outpatient basis. The reality is that the move dumped many mental health patients on the criminal justice system.

Fixing the situation will require a multifaceted approach, Daniels says.

First and foremost it means actual mental health reform. “That includes funding, procedure, structure, the whole nine yards,” he says. “Almost all of it comes down to money. It really makes the world go round for stuff like this. Money could improve manpower, (provide) more therapists, more training.”

Rural areas such as Sanpete County get very little mental health funding compared to larger areas. Even areas with better funding, such as Sevier County, don’t receive nearly enough to really address the problem. But the funding enables Sevier to do some things Sanpete can’t do. For instance, Sevier operates a mental health court, which is similar to the drug court in Sanpete, except that it is tailored to those with mental illnesses instead of substance abuse problems.

While the Sanpete County drug court does receive some funding to help with mentally ill clients, it’s a tiny amount in the grand scheme of things, Daniels says. And not all mentally ill offenders are substance abusers. If they’re not, they’re not eligible for drug court.

“It’s a systemic issue,” Daniels says, “Our local mental health officials do the best they can with the limited resources. I made a promise a long time ago that if I ever got in a position like this, I would do my best to highlight areas that need to be fixed, whether that ruffles feathers or not.”

Michael Hartnell, seen here in his booking photo, murdered his stepfather while struggling with serious mental illness. Hartnell tried to find help in advance of the killing, but was turned away.