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Drug Court: Salt Lake County's Greatest Hope For Addicts Arrested On Rio Grande

Whittney Evans / KUER
Dave Daniel calls First Step House amazing. Operation Rio Grande was the first opportunity Daniel has had to get treatment for heroin addiction.

This week, people who were arrested during Operation Rio Grande went before a judge and asked for help. By agreeing to avoid drugs and alcohol, get treatment and check in once a week, they were offered a spot in Salt Lake County’s new drug court.

Dave Daniel lives at the alcohol and drug treatment facility First Step House. He’s been there about a week. Daniel was homeless and addicted to heroin when he was arrested last month. 

“I’m tired of going to jail,” Daniel says. “I’m tired of going to that shithole jail you’ve got here. But I’m just tired of jail. I’m tired of living out there.  It’s cold in the winter time.”

But I'm just tired of jail. I'm tired of living out there. It's cold in the winter time.- Dave Daniel

Daniel is checking in with the court today. He’s been addicted to drugs most of his adult life and this is the first time he’s accepted treatment. Drug court is different from traditional court. It allows nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders to choose treatment over jail.

In the past month, law-enforcement have arrested more than 1,000 people outside The Road Home as part of a crackdown called Operation Rio Grande. And in an effort to do more than just lock people in jail, lawyers and social workers screened dozens of inmates to see if they were eligible for drug court. Salt Lake County officials created a fourth court specifically for this operation. 

Daniel says he’s comfortable at First Step House although he’s had to give up some freedom, like riding his bicycle.

“You can do what you want in about a block radius,” Daniel says. “I want to go like a hundred-mile radius. I love riding my bike. I put 150 to 200 miles every day on my bike. I usually ride all the way down to Sandy to Draper to Taylorsville and back up here.

Third District Court Judge Dennis Fuchs is seeing defendants today but I’m not allowed to record in the courtroom. One by one people approach the bench to explain their circumstances. Fuchs led the state’s first drug court in Salt Lake County back in 1996. He asks about their drug of choice. Why they started using and why they want to quit. All of them are in blue jumpsuits. Their hands cuffed behind their backs. 

One of them is a 44-year-old man who says he used prescription pain medication after he injured his back. When his meds were stolen, he says he picked up a heroin habit. He’s been homeless for the last six years.

A 28-year-old woman is waiting for a bed at Odyssey House. She tells the judge she became addicted to Percocet after two C-sections. She also turned to heroin.

Another young woman has a Master of Business Administration. Pain pills. Heroin. Homelessness. The stories echo one another, but each is just as devastating as the last.

Utah State Representative Jim Dunnigan was there. His first experience with drug court.

“I am a bit surprised, at least with the population that we heard today,” Dunnigan says.  “Many of them have been productive members of society. They’ve had a trauma; physical, emotional or losing a love one. And that’s caused them to self-medicate and start using illicit substances.”

Dunnigan doesn’t think this kind of treatment is for everyone. He volunteers in county jails where he sees people who he says just aren’t ready to commit to recovery.

“But one thing that I’ve noticed is that when people become clean for a while, their mind becomes clear and they start to have hope and that’s the biggest thing that we can give them,” Dunnigan says. “And I think that’s what you’re seeing in the drug court today is they’re starting to envision that there is hope for them.”

While treatment alone may not be the answer, research is clear on drug courts, says State Courts Administrator Rick Schwermer. Judicial supervision, accountability and treatment works.

“That’s the combination you need to be successful with people that have this kind of a history of failure in our criminal justice system and in life, frankly,” Schwermer says. 

That's the combination you need to be successful with people that have this kind of a history of failure in our criminal justice system and in life, frankly. -Rick Schwermer, State Courts Administrator

Without drug court, Schwermer says, people get stuck in a cycle where they’re in and out of jail on the same charges. It’s a seemingly endless circle and there’s no way out.

“And the whole point of a drug court which we call a problem-solving court, they solve problems,” he says. “They solve the problem that causes the criminal behavior. And that’s the key to stopping the cycle.”

Outside the courtroom, Dave Daniel tells me he wants to be sober, but everything…anything could trigger a relapse.

“Going outside like right here. There’s a lot of drug dealers that live right around this area that I’ve went to,” Daniel says. “When I went outside to smoke a cigarette. It’s hard to be out here. To go outside even right now.”

But Daniel says, at least for now, the hope and optimism he has outweighs the benefit of another high. 

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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