Wanda Barzee’s release prompts legislation about getting out of prison without mental health treatment

SALT LAKE CITY — Wanda Barzee’s release from prison has prompted a Utah lawmaker to draft legislation over inmates who are released into the community without mental health treatment.

Wanda Barzee (photo courtesy Utah Dept. of Corrections)

“It’s not right so I’ve got a bill file open to deal with that,” Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said in an interview with FOX 13 on Thursday.

Rep. Ivory said he is troubled that Barzee was allowed to be released from prison on Wednesday after 15 years behind bars, despite refusing to participate in mental health treatment.

“When someone pleads guilty and mentally ill, they’re still credited for time served even if they refuse treatment,” he said.

Barzee pleaded guilty but mentally ill to her role in the kidnapping of then-14-year-old Elizabeth Smart back in 2002. While her husband, Brian David Mitchell, got life in federal prison, Barzee’s plea deal called for her federal and state sentences to run together. She was released on Wednesday because the prison could not legally keep her any longer.

An empty chair where Wanda Barzee was to sit during her parole hearing. She refused to be transported. (Image by Doug Eldredge, FOX 13 News)

At her parole hearing in June, Barzee refused to appear and the Utah Board of Pardons & Parole said she refused to participate in mental health treatment programs.

Elizabeth Smart and her family have expressed fears about Barzee being in the community without mental health treatment. She is currently under federal probation, which requires that she undergo therapy. If she refuses or doesn’t comply, she could be sent back to federal prison.

Rep. Ivory said he believed it was a loophole in Utah law that has enabled Barzee to refuse treatment, but also be released after serving her maximum sentence. His proposed legislation, he told FOX 13, would remove the credit for time served from a sentence if an inmate didn’t undergo mental health treatment.

“First thing, it closes that loophole. If someone pleads guilty and mentally ill, they don’t get credited for time served if they refuse treatment,” he said.

Steve Burton, the president of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, expressed some concerns about the bill.

“If we want to get them mental health treatment, then they need to not be in prison. They need to be treated in a hospital and not prison and forced to take mind-altering medications in order to get credit before being released,” he said.

Elizabeth Smart in a 2013 interview with FOX 13.

Burton, who is a criminal defense attorney, said keeping someone in so they get treatment is contradictory to the goals of mental health therapy.

“If we’re trying to punish them, we can’t require mental health treatment in order to get a lesser punishment. Either they’re sick and they need help or they’re in jail for punishment purposes,” he said.

Rep. Ivory said the legislature sets the statute for crimes and he believed they could determine things like whether someone is credited for going through treatment.

“Clearly, this isn’t right,” he said. “But closing this up hopefully gives some relief to the Smart family that this won’t happen to others.”