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Op-ed: Utah drug courts are still going strong

Judge Michael Kwan talks with a defendant during drug court in Taylorsville. Drug courts are small municipal courts.
Judge Michael Kwan talks with a defendant during drug court in Taylorsville. Drug courts are small municipal courts.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Deseret News recently published a story titled “Unintended consequences: Investigation reveals why drug court enrollment is declining.” The article explores an important topic and reveals how even well-planned reforms can cause unexpected issues. The problem with the article, however, is that most, if not all, of the unintended consequences described in it occurred in California and Washington. Fortunately, Utah drug courts are doing much better.

Since the implementation of Utah’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which is different from the California and Washington criminal justice reform efforts, enrollment in drug court has actually increased 20 percent. At the same time, the number of individual clients served in drug court has decreased by 9 percent. It is too early to tell for sure why this is, but it seems drug courts are focusing more on high-needs people who may be participating in drug court more than one time. This is very good news because drug court is most effective when it serves people who have high needs and are at a high risk to reoffend.

In contrast, drug court can actually be harmful to people who are considered low-risk. A first-time drug user who is charged with drug possession may not be a high-need, high-risk drug addict at all. He may just be someone who made one stupid mistake, never to be repeated. Evidence shows that putting a person like this under intense supervision, such as drug court, can actually push the person into reoffending. Considering this, Utah’s drug court numbers are heartening.

In contrast to other states, Utah’s JRI actually expanded who is normally eligible for drug court. In some states, only those who have drug charges can participate in drug court. The evidence in Utah, however, showed that many people who committed property crimes had similarly high needs for substance-abuse treatment. Thanks to JRI and Utah courts, people without drug charges can fully participate in drug court.

Finally, some of the people from outside Utah who were interviewed claimed that imposing unreasonably harsh felony charges for first-time drug offenses is necessary to create “leverage” to force people into drug courts. But this is a terrible policy. Inflating the charge for a crime simply to manipulate a person is not compatible with the goals of criminal justice in Utah.

Criminal justice policy in Utah is designed to increase public safety, reduce recidivism and provide restitution to victims. Inflating charges for “leverage” serves none of those purposes. When inflated charges are left on the books, they inevitably end up hurting minorities and otherwise vulnerable defendants who don’t get the benefit of the “leverage” and who too often suffer the full force of the inflated charges simply because they don’t have the support, the clout or the money necessary to negotiate the charges down. That is not how we do things in Utah.

Drug courts, when administered correctly, can have a positive impact on individual defendants and society as a whole. For years now, Utah courts have done a stellar job administering top-notch drug court programs. JRI does not change that. Any reforms must be constantly monitored to avoid unintended consequences. Fortunately, with enrollment up 20 percent, Utah’s drug courts are still going strong.

Marshall Thompson is the director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, which publishes sentencing guidelines and advises all three branches of the Utah government on sentencing policy.