Everyone told him not to, but Rex Newton didn’t listen. On Aug. 20, the then-homeless man wouldn’t listen to security guards who told him to leave the Salt Lake City Main Library. According to reports, Newton angrily insisted on bringing a shopping cart into the library and pushed past the security guards, threatening them with a metal cane before running past the guards in a furor. When Newton brandished the cane again, he was tackled to the ground. Newton screamed, clawed and kicked against the two security officers and, as a result, was pepper-sprayed twice in the face at close range. He was then arrested and spent three weeks in jail.
Newton didn’t listen, likely because of the combination of severe mental-health and cognitive-development issues he has. According to a caregiver, he has an IQ of 60, along with schizophrenia and anxiety.
Ironically, while Newton’s failure to listen has caused him constant grief, it may also be the only key to getting him help. Despite having spent the past decade cycling through the Salt Lake City courts on 20 different charges ranging from evictions to trespassing and making bogus 911 calls, this felony charge will be the first time Newton is placed in Salt Lake County’s Mental Health Court, where the court can supervise Newton’s compliance with treatment in a structured fashion.
According to Julie Beckstead, who works at the Utah Independent Living Center, Newton is a common example of the kind of individuals she sees who fall through the cracks.
“He gets angry, he reacts and then he gets in trouble,” Beckstead says, adding that the pattern is only going to get worse, since Newton’s mental health is degenerating. “He certainly needs something—more than what he’s been getting.”
What Newton and others like him need doesn’t yet exist—but for Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill, the next evolution the mental-health court model needs to make is special treatment for people like Newton.
“They are what I call ‘tweeners,’” Gill says. “Because they may have a learning disability or brain injury co-occurring with mental-health issues, and they are people who are languishing in our jails.” Gill says such individuals can be shuffled between service providers, ending up with the county jail as their ultimate caretaker.
Beckstead can testify to Newton’s bad luck within the state’s service-provider community. As an employee of the Independent Living Center, Beckstead helps clients with disabilities find housing, learn bus routes, keep treatment appointments—enough to foster some measure of self-reliance, to where the center’s services are no longer needed. In Newton’s case, however, Beckstead has been working with him since he showed up at the center’s door from Evanston, Wyo., 14 years ago.
While Newton was able to live on his own for a short time, his condition quickly worsened. Beckstead says Newton fell through the cracks in the early ’90s, with mental-health providers saying he needed treatment more specific to his moderate mental retardation, and service providers who treat developmentally challenged clients saying he was better suited for a mental-health provider.
“I couldn’t find anyone to give him service until [Newton] got angry at a telephone company and called in a bomb scare,” Beckstead says. “And then my phone was ringing off the hook.” Valley Mental Health took him on after the bomb scare in the late ’90s, but the treatment was only temporary.
Throughout the 2000s, Newton was evicted from a group home and two other locations. He was able, however, to enroll as a client of ongoing treatment at Valley Mental Health in the fall of 2009 as a condition of the court dismissing a disorderly conduct charge.
Even with treatment, Newton found himself being churned through the system—facing six new charges since receiving court-ordered treatment, ranging from trespassing and more false emergency calls to his assault charge from the library incident.
Having been kicked out of low-income housing and a group home because of his erratic behavior, Beckstead says Newton recently lived for more than a year at the Road Home shelter.
For having received multiple assault charges, Newton in person seems as intimidating as the Rain Man. Besides his mental-health issues and developmental disabilities, he is also asthmatic and suffers from eczema so bad he wears hospital scrubs that won’t chafe his legs. And despite a long history of court appearances, Newton is ecstatic about joining Mental Health Court. At the end of a recent court hearing on the assault charge, Newton wandered to the other side of the courthouse just to watch Mental Health Court in action, even though it wasn’t required.
To witness the court in action is to witness something more akin to a social gathering than a stuffy legal affair. Part of the success of the program, according to Gill, who helped found the court in 2001, is the community support. Participants in court who are compliant get to ride the “rocket docket,” where court “offenders” quickly line up to check in with the judge who congratulates them for complying with treatment and taking their medications. The participant then receives a hearty round of applause from the judge and the entire court.
“One of the remarkable things we discovered is the greatest sanction we had [with Mental Health Court] isn’t jail, it was a verbal warning that we were going to take them off the rocket docket,” Gill says.
Currently, the court sees as many as 150 clients at any time, strictly those who have issues but are legally competent, since the program is voluntary. The court is open only to those who aren’t excessively violent or are sex offenders. Gill cites office studies that show Mental Health Court participants having a recidivism rate of 17 to 19 percent, compared to rates as high as 70 percent in the regular courts for offenders who also have mental-health issues. Since the court keeps participants hooked up to services, supervision and ready access to needed medications, Gill says the Salt Lake County program saves taxpayers as much as $1.2 million a year when it comes to cutting back on police, emergency, jail and other costs.
In Salt Lake County, Gill would hope to see the court expand from two judges holding the court once a week, to a full-time court held every day. He also says the court needs to grow to tailor services to individuals like Newton who struggle with developmental disabilities as well as mental-health issues. Gill is making no promises for immediate action because of resource constraints, but he is starting to talk with service providers.
It’s a conversation he says will benefit everyone from taxpayers to vulnerable individuals like Newton.
“I’ve been a public prosecutor all my life,” Gill says. “I’m hard-nosed, and I will send you to prison if I need to. But I also know that if you treat people with respect and dignity, the dividends you get back are profound.”