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`DRUG COURT’ TAKES NEW TACK ON ADDICTS

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The junkie's court of last resort is in session soon.

Designed to help handle a deluge of drug-related cases swamping a judicial system out of room for all but the worst criminals, Salt Lake County's new "drug court" opens its doors in early April."This is a thing that's going to happen," said F. John Hill, director of Salt Lake Legal Defense, which does much of its business representing repeat-offense drug addicts.

The county is finally catching up with a trend that is well-entrenched - and well-received - in some 40 other cities around the country, Hill said during a meeting between representatives of the legal community and the Salt Lake County Council of Governments last week.

Drug court is supposed to see that addicts heal rather than end up housed repeatedly - and pointlessly - in a jail cell.

According to law-enforcement officials who tout the new tactic, such an approach is the only true solution to addiction and the best answer to drug habits that lead to other crimes.

"These are the kind of people who rob, who steal, who burglarize (to support their lifestyles)," said Salt Lake Deputy District Attorney Bud Ellett.

"It's beyond people's capability to beat their addiction on their own," added Scott Reed, an assistant attorney general specializing in drug interdiction. "These people will perform for a judge when they will not perform for anyone else in the system."

Through regular drug-testing, drug court administrators will monitor the behavior of defendants for a year, seeing that they receive substance-abuse counseling and moral support for staying straight. If they follow the rules, they walk, case dismissed.

The need for a new way is evident, said Ellett, who said his office has seen a stunning increase in drug-related crimes that totaled about 4,200 last year, nearly double the 2,300 recorded in 1994.

"We think we can make better use of our judicial resources," said Ellett, adding that prosecutors are giving up little by going to drug court because participation requires a waiver of constitutional rights and lets the prosecution dictate the fate of defendants.

Access to drug court is limited to a select population of the substance-abuse community. Mere drunks cannot take part, nor can chronic marijuana smokers. Addiction to hard drugs - cocaine, crack, methampetamine, heroin - is a prerequisite.

Additional criteria narrow it even more, said Reed. Drug-court junkies must have at least one similar prior conviction. Violence-prone criminals need not apply and those prone to drug-dealing rather than drug addiction are ruled out, as are parolees and non-citizens.

The taxpayer-at-large benefits by forking out less for better results, said Reed, who cited statistics showing drug-court recidivism four times lower than that seen in traditional courtrooms and much cheaper than justice as it is normally pursued. A similar Seattle program, he said, costs about $1,700 per year per defendant. Jail, by comparison, is $25,000 annually per inmate.

Reed predicted that 3rd District Court Judge Dennis M. Fuchs, tasked with presiding over drug court, will find it a fresh experience.

"Judges," he said, "are conditioned to see failure, time after time."