A Better Way
How Bill Bohling helped establish Utah’s first mental health court
Published in 2021 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine on July 13, 2021
When Bill Bohling was a third district court judge in Utah, he often saw what he calls frequent flyers.
“People with mental illnesses would often not have the benefit of medication or any kind of support. They would end up committing petty offenses—they’d urinate in public; create a disturbance. Usually, a court would sentence them to 10 days or something, and put them on probation for a few months,” he says. “It was a revolving door: in and out, in and out.”
In 2000, Bohling attended a conference in Reno, Nevada, where he learned about a then-new concept: the mental health court. “The thought came up that maybe there was a better way to manage that. … There are a lot of mentally ill people where, if you get them on meds and give them support from the community, get them housing, they can start their life over again. It’s a very reassuring concept.”
The idea stuck with Bohling, and upon his return, he and fellow Judge Judith S.H. Atherton set to work initiating such a court in Utah. After receiving approval from the state’s judicial counsel, and getting a handful of social service workers, mental health experts and attorneys on board, the Salt Lake County Mental Health Court—the first in the state and among the first in the nation—officially started in mid-2001.
Initially, the court had 20 to 30 participants, limited to those with a confirmed Axis I disorder who had committed misdemeanors. Pleas were taken in abeyance, meaning that if offenders successfully completed court, their charges would be dismissed. Bohling would convene court every week or two, making sure participants were on their medications, and taking note of whether they were meeting with their probation officers or committing any new offenses.
With its miniscule budget, the biggest struggle the court had was finding adequate housing. “If you have a person who is mentally ill, and they go to the shelter … usually you have to basically tie all your belongings to you, so if you go to sleep someone isn’t going to take them,” Bohling says. “If people are homeless, they are going to have a very difficult time complying with anything because they’re trying to find a safe place to sleep or eat.”
Once the court felt someone was ready to move on—after a period of months or years—they would hold graduation ceremonies. “We’d bring treats, and everybody in the courtroom associated with the mental health court would come down and be very reassuring and welcoming to these folks,” says Bohling. “We became kind of a cheering section for these people. If they were to come back and say, ‘I’ve been clean for three weeks, I’m on my meds,’ we would stand up and cheer. It was a very supportive process. All the personnel thought it was a terrific experience, because instead of punishing people we were trying to encourage them to stay clean and stay on their medication. It was a very supportive environment.”
He notes that it can be tough for a participant to lose that sense of community once they ‘graduate.’ Still, mental health courts in the state and around the country have been successful; a 2017 analysis by researchers from North Carolina State University showed that mental health courts are effective at reducing recidivism.
“It was so heartening to feel like you could intervene in the lives of people that you had a great deal of compassion for—people who were in a system that was not offering them a lot of support,” says Bohling, who retired from the bench in 2004 and is now a mediator in Salt Lake City. “I had a number of issues I got very interested in when I was a judge, but there’s nothing quite as heartwarming as dealing with something like this. [The court] was a way of making a commitment to a population I had a great deal of empathy for.”