How mental health staffing shortages are delaying justice in Utah’s courts

SALT LAKE CITY – As the leaves changed color and fell last month, Matt Guitar sat in a park surrounded by the evidence of the passing of time.

“I have this open wound that I just want to close,” he said.

As fall gave way to winter, Guither faced another holiday season without her husband, Dennis Rowley Guither.

“Being with Dennis was the first time I felt like my life was 100% right,” Matt said.

Dennis has been missing since May 2019. He was shot and killed while driving from Salt Lake to Idaho on Interstate 84.

Prosecutors in Box Elder County have charged Jonathan Mendoza Lana, 48, with murder and filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty.

Jonathan Mendoza Wall

But Matt says the case has been delayed because of the uncertainty surrounding Lana’s mental state. Llana was found incompetent to stand trial and ordered to undergo treatment at Utah State Hospital in an attempt to regain his competency.

Over time, as Matt anticipated and attended the competency review hearings, usually scheduled six months apart, his understanding of the term “speedy justice” changed.

“Swift is a matter of years,” he said, “not a matter of months or weeks.”

This year, three hearings in the case were canceled or continued due to delays in assessment reports. The reports were either not yet ready or had not been submitted to the courts in time for review before the hearings.

While delays for some are par for the course in the criminal justice system, Matt explained that for victims and their families, a court hearing is not a one-day event.

“You find yourself, sort of, the week leading up to the hearing, building, building up what you’re going to expect at that hearing,” Matt explained, “and then it just doesn’t happen because somebody didn’t do their homework , it gets frustrating.”

Staffing is the number one challenge facing Utah State Hospital in Provo, according to Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw.

Utah State Hospital in Provo. (Photo: Josh Schimanik)

“They’re not just not turning in their homework,” he said of the hospital’s forensic evaluators, “they’re constantly turning in extra work. So falling behind isn’t a sign that you don’t care.”

According to data provided by Earnshaw, while staff shortages are a problem, the hospital’s workload has simultaneously increased. They have seen a 22% increase in court referrals for mental health evaluations since fiscal year 2020.

The hospital had difficulty contracting, hiring, and retaining qualified evaluators.

“We’re not alone in this,” Earnshaw said. “This is something that has affected health care across the country.”

KSL researchers have learned that currently, about 33 percent of initial mental health evaluations for the courts are filed late, past the 30-day deadline. Although Earnshaw noted, “Over 60% of reports meet all schedule requirements.”

When it comes to ongoing case reports like Lana’s, Earnshaw said delays are less common. When reports are delayed, it’s often because of the complexity of the case and the evaluators’ desire to be as thorough as possible, he said.

What is the solution?

“It’s a challenge,” Earnshaw said, “because as a community we have to understand what’s going on, why we’re in this situation. What is the cause of this great resignation?”

With gun violence and mental health at the center, Matt wants to see change.

“If we’re not going to deal with the gun issues, that’s fine. Let’s tackle mental health issues,” he said. “If you pay someone enough money, they will be willing to work in the public hospital. So is the hospital not getting the funding it needs to hire staff? Didn’t he ask for funding?’

Despite multiple inquiries, officials with the state Department of Health and Human Services would not confirm to KSL whether a request for additional funding to address staffing issues at the state hospital had reached Gov. Spencer Cox.

Earnshaw wrote in an email to KSL, “USH is working with state leaders to address workforce shortage issues.”

Those decisions, he said, include compensation, recruitment and retention strategies.

After months of court delays, Matt wants to see the state invest what it takes to adequately staff its hospital — both for patients and those waiting for justice.

“It’s victimizing the family again, making us wait again,” he said. “We have to do better.”

Matt and Dennis were together for almost 10 years. They said yes on the first day their marriage became legal in Utah, a Friday in December 2013.

“We were the second or third of the last couple to get married in the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office,” he said, recalling the excitement of that day with a smile.

Those close to Dennis describe him as a child in a man’s body, a technological genius and a beloved pillar of Utah’s LGBTQ community.

“He was always the guy who never wanted the glory, but he always made things happen,” Matt said.

On Thursday, Matt felt a little closer to getting justice for Dennis. He said he understood that Lana’s lawyers would not challenge the hospital’s latest assessment that Lana was competent to stand trial.

However, a competency review hearing scheduled for next week has already been postponed until January.

“Disappointed in the delay,” he wrote in a text message to KSL Thursday morning, “but I understand this is a long process to get justice for Dennis. I am happy that the defendant stays off the street and cannot affect other families.

Lana’s attorney had no comment on his behalf for this report.


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