The Utah State Courts report that arrests for drug-related crimes have doubled in recent years, which has become motivation for the state to turn to drug court programming over incarceration.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill helped to implement drug courts in Utah more than 10 years ago.
But with continually rising drug arrests, the program has become important in recent years as a way to lower costs of incarceration for the Utah taxpayer.
“Drug courts work by recognizing that unless substance abuse ends, fines and jail time are unlikely to prevent future criminal activity,” according to the Utah State Courts.
Gill said the average cost to jail someone in Salt Lake County is $71 a day, a sum that quickly adds up when the rate of incarceration for non-violent drug users is consistently increasing.
“Crime is going to be around,” Gill said. “My challenge has been to create a situation where we can proactively reach in and collaborate with our communities in order to not be crisis managers, but be proactive agents who contribute to alleviating these issues.”
Gill said the way to do this is by promoting rehabilitation. After treatment in drug courts, Gill said, the recidivism arrest rate—that is, the likelihood in which people commit new crimes—decreased from 68 percent to around 23 percent.
John Anderson, a criminal defense attorney in Salt Lake City, said the criminal recidivism rate is universally accepted in the legal system as statistical fact and speaks to the success of the programming.
According to the Urban Institute and the Center for Court Innovation, the success of drug courts has been seen nationwide. A study of 23 drug courts in seven states showed that drug use was reduced by one-third after 18 months of participation in the programs, and the case studies were responsible for half as many criminal acts as those not participating in drug court.
“Largely because of these reductions in criminal behavior, drug courts ended up saving an estimated $5,680 dollars per participant,” the study said.
But Anderson said that drug courts are only successful for those who actually want to be there.
“The courts are hard-core. The requirements to participate are onerous. If someone puts in some effort and takes it seriously, they can curb the addictions and behaviors that got them there in the first place.”
If someone doesn’t want to actively participate in the programming, jail time seems to be the easier alternative, Anderson said.
Tiffany Brown, who served as a Utah Assistant Attorney General and Salt Lake County District Attorney, has actively worked with drug court participants.
“It’s hard for me as a taxpayer or as a member of the legal system to incarcerate a person who is solely ingesting substances that are harmful to him or herself,” Brown said. “So when you have that straight drug user who doesn’t go out and commit property crimes or violent crimes, or doesn’t harm anyone else, I don’t want to waste money on that person—ever.”
Brown said drug court programming is an effective way to reduce costs because the taxpayers are not providing health care, foster care, and other programming for incarcerated people or their children.
But the system is not perfect, Brown said.
“It’s a uniquely designed system that helps take a step back from traditional legal procedures and promotes rehabilitation,” Brown said. “But flaws exist as a result of the inability to totally fund the system in the way that it needs to be funded, in order to ensure that the people who are participating are more concerned about usage and less concerned about being caught.”
If the person lacks the desire to recover, the program’s benefits drop substantially, Brown said.
But Gill said that overall, drug court is both the economically and psychologically sound alternative.
“It’s not just a good progressive idea that I’m talking about,” Gill said. “It has become a fiscal necessity.”
“The worst thing you can do to a person is make them feel insignificant.” Drug court programming has started to prevent that, he said.