Simply being accused of stealing a book of Utah Transit Authority bus transfers has kept Mark Yowell in jail for three months—and if he’s released, he’ll be homeless, having lost his subsidized housing because of the incident. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Yowell’s been homeless before. He has been taking his medications and generally pulled his life together in the past year, his girlfriend says, but that has stalled because of a disagreement about a $2 bus transfer.
“It’s just outrageous,” says Karen Baldwin, Yowell’s girlfriend, who blames the bus driver for creating the chaos. Though she didn’t witness the May 22 episode that led to Yowell’s incarceration, she knows the bus driver and has seen him interact with Yowell before. “He treats Mark like a 5-year-old,” which is demeaning and escalates disagreements, Baldwin says.
The 36-year-old Yowell, who says he has not taken medication in jail because he doesn’t trust his jailers, is a little hazy about details these days. When asked how long he’s been in jail, he says “almost a month,” when really it’s been more than three months.
According to police reports, Yowell boarded his regular Saturday bus at 1000 E. South Temple and encountered the same driver he usually sees. When outside the downtown free-fare zone, drivers usually take payment when passengers board, but the driver told police that “Mark asked that his Medicaid card be punched and [the driver] told him he would punch it when he exited.” When Mark tried to exit the bus at 450 W. 200 South, Mark again asked for his Medicaid card to be punched, the report states, but “[the driver] asked to wait until all of the other passengers had gotten off as Mark was blocking the exit.” According to the driver’s remarks in the report, Yowell tried to grab a transfer, the driver grabbed Yowell’s wrist, Yowell pushed the driver and then grabbed the book of transfers and ran south on Rio Grande Street.
That’s almost how Yowell describes the situation from inside the jail, except he says the driver told him that he’d forgotten his puncher that day and asked Yowell to ride without his card being punched. When Yowell asked for a transfer as he was leaving, the driver told him he couldn’t have one, again, because the driver didn’t have a puncher to indicate the expiration of the transfer. Yowell, fearing he could get a ticket for riding without proof of payment, admits there was an argument, but doesn’t admit to stealing anything or touching the driver. Baldwin says frankly, however, that Yowell probably did try to take at least one transfer.
There were witnesses, but UTA Police did not make reports of any interviews with them. Yowell was released from jail about a week after the incident because charges still had not been filed. Three months later, in August, he was picked up on a $10,000 warrant after the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office filed a second-degree felony robbery charge. That charge, which requires proof that Yowell stole the transfers by use of “force or fear,” carries a potential prison sentence of up to 15 years. Yowell has been in jail ever since.
Whether Yowell stole one transfer or 79, Baldwin says, his mental health should mitigate the situation. She believes he should receive a misdemeanor charge and should not be incarcerated.
“It took me four months to get him to go to [Valley Mental Health] to get back on his meds. It took me six months to get him social enough to be around my friends,” she says. “Now he’s stuck in there, and what do you think his reaction is going to be?”
Yowell’s caseworker from Valley Mental Health, Carl Webster, has not visited him in jail, and Yowell has already lost his subsidized housing, also arranged through Valley, Baldwin says. A Valley Mental Health representative declined to comment for this story.
Baldwin praises most UTA drivers for their sensitivity to mental illness, but this driver—whose name was redacted from the police reports—had been an ongoing problem for Yowell, she says.
UTA operators are not expected to be experts on mental illness, says UTA’s Gerry Carpenter. Indeed, they receive just 25 minutes of sensitivity training on a computer program regarding customers with mental-health issues or physical limitations. Operators also receive 56 hours of one-on-one coaching from a supervisor prior to taking the wheel, but Carpenter says there’s no curriculum regarding mental health that supervisors must share with trainees during that period. Additionally, ongoing training on mental health issues is not assured. Refresher courses “take place as needed,” Carpenter says, if a driver receives complaints.
Yowell received a 30-day mental evaluation in jail and had been scheduled for a Nov. 22 orientation into mental-health court. That program is designed to account for people’s special needs due to mental health issues by expediting cases and coordinating efforts between the justice system and Valley Mental Health. But that orientation was canceled the day it was to occur. Yowell, now off his meds for the past three months or so, is too ill for that court; he’s been declared incompetent to stand trial and may be sent to the Utah State Hospital in Provo.
The forensic ward at the hospital works to restore competency to criminal defendants through drugs and therapy, then returns them to the court system to stand trial. According to a 2007 legislative audit, patients/inmates stay at the hospital on average about four months before returning to jail to stand trial with newly restored competency; 85 percent of patient/inmates sent to the forensic ward are restored to competency. The other 15 percent stay at the hospital indefinitely.
The same audit states that each patient/inmate in the forensic ward costs taxpayers $414 per day. At that rate, more tax money will be spent returning Yowell to competency in the first 11 hours that he is at the hospital than the value of the entire UTA transfer book he’s accused of stealing. Baldwin blames the criminal prosecution for knocking him off his medication schedule in the first place.
Crying while relaying the news, Baldwin says she fears she may never see Yowell again.
“[If he’s sent to the state hospital] I’ll lose him for sure, and I’ll lose him forever,” she says. “Because he doesn’t know these people, and he doesn’t trust them. So how are they going to get any kind of rapport with him just sticking him down there? They’re not. They don’t understand the whole thing with schizophrenia.”
Yowell is next scheduled to appear in 3rd District Court on March 7 for a competency hearing.
Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office Criminal Division Director Paul Parker sent the following statement via e-mail. The question was whether the DA's office considers external factors--like a person losing his subsidized housing--when deciding what charges to file: “This is an issue that we do in fact deal with constantly. We do not charge in the blind. We are very much aware of the costs of those charged particularly to the mentally ill. In our charging decisions we weigh the evidence presented and the danger to the community against the consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system. The need to be careful in this decision is one reason that prosecutors are given the unique ethical obligation to do justice. The District Attorney’s Office sets standards and trains attorneys to deal with these sometimes conflicting interests. The District Attorney’s Office also participates in and supports, with other County partners, initiatives such as mental health court, a receiving center for the mentally ill and other alternatives to incarceration for the mentally ill.”
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