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New program aims to end jail's revolving door of drug offenders

Many attribute success to those running the new initiative and additional structure it provides

SALT LAKE CITY — When Steven Eskelsen walked into his probation office in 2015, he knew what the court expected of him to stay out of jail.

But he also knew he wasn't strong enough to do it.

"I walked in there and I was in tears. I broke down. I was just like, 'I can't. I'm going to kill myself. This is going to kill me. I need help,'" he recalled.

It was at that point that his probation officer asked Eskelsen if he'd be willing to try a new initiative called the Intensive Supervision Program.

Eskelsen gave it try. Today, he has been clean of heroin for 14 months.

"I've never had that much time clean off heroin," he said.

But just as important, Eskelsen has been able to mend relationships with his parents and sisters — bonds that he thought were damaged forever. Earlier this year, Eskelsen, now 30, said his family invited him to join them on their vacation to Disneyland.

"So I went with them. And that was the first vacation I'd taken with them since I was a kid, since I was 13 or 14 years old," he said.

The Intensive Supervision Program is a joint effort between the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office, Criminal Justice Services and Behavioral Health Services aimed at reducing overcrowding at the Salt Lake County Jail by focusing on those caught up in the jail's constant "revolving door."

By targeting high-risk offenders, mainly those with long-term drug addictions, giving them access to the services they need whether that be drug treatment, mental health treatment or other life skills — and then having continuous contact with them to help them stay sober — the program hopes to keep repeat offenders out of jail once and for all.

The key to the program is constant interaction and positive reinforcement with clients. A normal probation program typically only requires a client to check in with a probation officer at a field office once or twice a month. And unlike regular county probation, the Intensive Supervision Program has a field component allowing deputies and case managers to make regular home visits.

Chris Lane, case management supervisor at Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services, said it's a more structured program that regular probation. And forcing clients to have structure in their lives provides greater benefits than leaving them alone and hoping they'll figure it out for themselves.

"That's what the research has shown on the evidence-based side, is that if you have a high-risk kind of client, if you give them all that structure, you will lower their recidivism," he said.

Initially, case workers see their clients twice a week when they first get into the program. The program has three levels. As a client advances to the next level up, the amount of supervision decreases a little.

Another difference between the Intensive Supervision Program and regular probation is how fast clients in the program get into treatment. The program has contracted with six treatment providers, and the treatment is funded. Those accepted into the program can normally get into an in-patient treatment facility in four weeks as opposed to having their name put on the typical four-month waiting list.

Although the program doesn't work for everyone, and it is still too new to determine what impact its having on the jail's revolving door, for the majority of clients it does work. And those the Deseret News talked to attribute their success to the people who are running it. As case manager Jeannie Ybarra visited several of her clients one day earlier this month, most of them greeted her with hugs — something not common for regular probation officers.

Helping a person achieve success in the program, however, isn't easy.


The first time Eskelsen was sent to an inpatient treatment center as part of the program, he ran away. After he was sent back, he tried to run way again. But his probation officer didn't give up.

"There's been multiple times that (my probation officer) should have taken me to jail and made me serve out my sentence, but she was patient with me, she was kind, she cared, which is something I really needed at (that) point. And she worked with me and got me to the point I am today," he said.

Eskelsen started smoking marijuana when he was 15. By 17, he was experimenting with ecstasy and cocaine. Then due to a sports-related injury, he got hooked on Oxycontin. When his doctor finally cut off his prescription, he purchased the pills from a friend who sold them to him for $45 to $70 apiece.

"I started doing heroin at 18 because Oxy was just too expensive. And I didn't even start out smoking heroin, I started shooting heroin," he said.

That habit lasted until 2015.

"For the last nine years of me using, it wasn't even about me getting high anymore, it was just staying well just to get through my day just to eat, just to function as a person," he said. "It was every day of my life. I'd go to bed (saying), 'This is it. As soon as I'm done with this dope tonight, I'm done. I'm waking up tomorrow and I'm done.' But I'd wake up the next day and just be so sick, I'd be like, 'Forget this. I'm going to get high again.'

"I always wanted to quit," he said. He knew he couldn't do it by himself but he didn't know how to ask for it.

"I couldn't ask my family," he said. "My mom basically threw up her hands. She was like, 'I'm done with him. I want nothing to do with him. He's your problem. Good luck.'

"My sisters, I wasn't talking to them. My older sister, I didn't know where she lived for a year. I didn't meet my niece until she was 6 months old. My family wanted nothing to do with me. They wanted absolutely nothing to do with me," Eskelsen continued.

After being in the program for several months, Eskelsen got an unexpected call from his sister one day asking if he would be available to baby-sit his niece.

"That's something she's never asked me to do. She wouldn't let her kids be in the same room as me. She wouldn't let them come over to my mom's house because she was afraid they'd find needles. That relationship today, they're still getting better. My mom, she'll call me. She used to be afraid to call me because she knew that I'd be asking for something, a ride somewhere or money or something. She's just not afraid to call me and talk to me and ask me how I'm doing," he said.

Eskelsen credits his probation officer and case worker for constantly checking on and encouraging him, and for being understanding when he slipped up.

"It doesn't seem like a regular probation program to me. My friends who have been in probation, they screw up one time, they're sent to jail and serve out their sentence," he said. "This program isn't about, 'Let's send 'em to jail. They're a waste of time. Let's forget them.' This program is about helping people and rehabilitating people."

County-level probation programs are only for people convicted of class B misdemeanors or lower. The state-run Adult Probation and Parole handles those convicted of more serious offenses. But that doesn't mean some in the Intensive Supervision Program haven't already been convicted and served time for felony offenses, including prior sentences at the Utah State Prison.

Currently, 71 percent of the 181 clients in the Intensive Supervision Program have been convicted of drug possession or other drug-related crimes. The main drugs of choice for those who enter the program are heroin and methamphetamine, according to administrators. The average age of the program participants is 32. Most are men — 62 percent — but there are many women.

On average, it takes a person nine months to graduate from the program. Initially, case managers contact their clients constantly — either by calling, texting or paying a visit to wherever they live, even if a client is couch surfing every night, or their "residence" is a shelter by the Jordan River.


Amanda Newsome started using drugs when she was 17 and progressed to heroin by 19. She was originally placed on standard probation, but it wasn't helping her solve her problems.

Newsome also became a young mother at this time. But her addiction didn't stop. She convinced herself that as long as she stayed home with her son rather than go out at night, it was OK to get high.

"I was physically there but I wasn't emotionally or mentally there for my son," she said. "I couldn't function if I wasn't high."

Change also didn't come easy for Newsome. During her first day at her outpatient program on the Intensive Supervision Program, she was asked to leave because she was high and threatened to fight people.

But rather than send her to jail, Ybarra personally drove out to where Newsome was, picked her up and talked to her.

"I think that was a really important step for her. She didn't get any charges. We were able to intervene right away. We were able to talk to her," Ybarra said.

She had a frank discussion with Newsome about why she should try an inpatient program, even if it meant being away from her son for a while.

"Through those constant discussions, through those multiple times per week that we're seeing her, and reminding her and staying on her, she was able to see this is not the best thing for me and my son. Just being home with my son while high is actually not better than being away from him for a little time and making our life better as a whole," she said.

Today, Newsome is completing her time in an inpatient treatment facility for women, and keeps in contact with Ybarra, even when they're not talking about her probation.

"It just seems like they care more," she said. "I'm very grateful because Jeannie didn't give up on me, helped save my life. I wouldn't be here today without her. She didn't throw (me) in jail. She just kept working with me. When you're an addict and you don't have those things in your life and you have somebody who really, truly cares and wants the best for you, it feels good."


Shawn Meyers is also about to graduate from the Intensive Supervision Program. But like others, his start with Ybarra and the program wasn't a smooth one.

"I was expecting it to be just like every other program. I really was. So I went in there with kind of an attitude," he admitted.

It wasn't until Meyers got into the program that he was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

"If you told me I couldn't do something I was going to do it, just because you told me I couldn't do it. Whether it was breaking laws, fighting, whether it was drinking, doing drugs, I didn't care," he said.

An example of that defiance came several years ago when his probation officer paid him a visit and the first thing he saw when he walked into Meyers' residence was a bong sitting on the table. At that time, Spice hadn't been outlawed yet.

"He's like, 'What is that?' And I told him, 'It's Spice.' I was like, 'It's still legal, right?' He's like, 'Yeah. It's very much legal. But I advise you to don't do it,'" Myers recalled, adding: "I picked it up and hit it right in front of him."

It took some brainstorming by case workers to decide how to handle Meyers. They decided to pull him out of group therapy sessions for drug rehabilitation that he hated, and place him in group sessions for parenting skills and anger management.

"They've opened my eyes to a lot of different solutions and how to handle different situations. Because I used to go from zero to 100 with my anger and my irritation real, real quick. Now it's coming down a lot. I've become a lot more passive and I don't jump to the defensive all the time," he said.

"It just blows my mind now that if I stop to think about situations and outcomes, it really helps."

Now, the man who once was resistant to the entire program wants to continue group sessions even after he graduates.


For Crissy Elmer, the problem was going through spurts of sobriety just to satisfy the court's requirements. Once those were met, she'd go right back to using drugs.

Elmer, now 23, has been in the court system since she was 15.

"Honestly, it's been very helpful to keep me accountable for being sober and not just being sober to stay out of jail necessarily, but to start my life over and make the right choices and have a life for myself that isn't behind bars," she said of the program.

Recently, Elmer was able to move into her own apartment.

"I think at some point you just get sick of the cycle that you go through. You get clean and you're on probation or you're in drug court, or you're on some sort of court-ordered supervision. And the second that you get off you go right back to your old habits," she said. "I think I've just kind of reached a point that, I'm like, 'All right, I'm done.' You go nowhere in life by staying in the vicious circle of addiction."

Today, Elmer says she actually texts Ybarra more than Ybarra checks up on her, talking about everything from life advice to what shower curtains to buy for her new apartment.

Rather than someone who is only there to make you take a drug test seven days a week, Elmer said, "It's nice to have people that care about you."


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