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Officials in northern Utah intend to continue a program aimed at rehabilitating rather than punishing criminal drug users - even though the program has seen more failure than success.

In the four years since its inception in Weber County, 136 enrollees have failed the drug diversion program, compared to 131 who completed treatment. A similar program in Davis County boasts a similarly spotty record.Even so, officials remain optimistic.

"Sure there are going to be those who schmooze the system without any interest in avoiding drugs in the future," said Weber County Attorney Mark DeCaria. "But there are enough who see it as a way to get help and stay out of trouble that the program is worth it.

"Drug diversion is unique in that it allows the court system to put a person back at the start, with a clean finish," DeCaria added.

The program, which was funded for the past four years by a $112,370 grant, allows first-time drug offenders to enter treatment after pleading guilty in court. The plea is held in abeyance, and if the offender stays clean and completes treatment, the charge is dropped.

But if they use drugs or miss counseling sessions, they are sentenced to jail time, prison or probation and hefty fines.

Funding for the program ran out this year, but both Davis and Weber counties have agreed to pay for its continuance out of their own budgets.

While most offenders are eventually sentenced, success stories keep the program running.

Kim Stybe, who screens eligible defendants through the Weber County Attorney's Office, recalls doubts about a man hooked on crack and heroin.

"I really didn't think he would make it" through the program, Stybe said. "But he stuck by it for two years because it was worth it to him. He was a young kid who needed help and was lost."

DeCaria praises program as tailored to the needs of people whose criminal conduct might not deserve punitive action.

"Our job is to prosecute people for criminal activity, but there are charges and circumstances where it is not appropriate to be punitive," he said. "Sometimes, therapy and treatment is all it takes to get their attention. It is an opportunity for them to wake up and smell the coffee."