SALT LAKE CITY — Straining under tremendous need, Salt Lake County is asking for half of the state's available grant money to begin filling the financial gap created when key elements of ambitious criminal justice reforms went unfunded.
Salt Lake County's mayor, sheriff and top prosecutor unveiled a request Tuesday for $3.6 million of an available $6 million in grant money from the state — more than the county's anticipated allotment of $1.9 million — in hopes of funding a four-pronged response to crime, addiction, mental illness and homelessness.
An additional request for $4.4 million is expected next year.
The grant money supports programs and services intended to back up the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which two years ago dropped a number of low-level felony drug crimes down to misdemeanors in hopes of stemming the steady flow of drug offenders headed to the Utah State Prison.
The decrease in penalties was meant to be accompanied by increased opportunities for treatment and intervention paid for in large part through Medicaid expansion, which later failed.
"What we know is that without funding for treatment, public safety will be jeopardized and the Justice Reinvestment Initiative will fail," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said at a Tuesday press conference.
McAdams was joined by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder. The announcement detailing plans for long-term solutions also included an admonition from the county leaders insinuating that Salt Lake City hasn't done its part to clean up the Rio Grande neighborhood in the interim.
Investing the state's grant money in Salt Lake County, an area that is already managing the bulk of the state's criminal cases and is home to numerous established service providers, offers the greatest promise for success, Gill said.
"If you talk about the biggest impact for the return on investment for taxpayers, to make systemic improvements for criminal justice reform, that investment in a preexisting program or infrastructure will give them the best return and will make the largest, quickest impact," Gill said.
The biggest ticket item in the county's plan is a specialty court — "Diversion Court" — for those detained in Operation Diversion efforts near the downtown homeless shelter, which police and political leaders have called an attempt to separate vulnerable individuals in need of help from the criminals who prey on their problems.
As he reemphasized his committment to aggressively prosecute criminals who exploit Utah's needy, homeless, mentally ill or addicted, Gill insisted locking up those with genuine needs is not a solution.
But the county's plan — following Operation Diversion's goals to separate criminals from their targets with a "unique prosecution strategy" designed to keep those in need involved in treatment — could be, Gill said.
"Our prosecution team will specifically target, prosecute and monitor with compliance the most violent and predatory offenders in one track, and provide treatment, supervision and continuity of support for the drug addicted and mentally ill with the expansion of this program," Gill said.
"This needs to be an investment committment for the long haul, randomizing our law enforcement operation to disrupt the criminal element and provide treatment and safety for those in need if we truly want to change the paradigm currently in play," Gill said.
Like the county's existing drug and mental health courts, Diversion Court would be a rehabilitative program focused on ending cycles of crime and addiction rather than on punishing those detained in the randomized roundups.
In three Operation Diversion sweeps last year, those identified as candidates for services were given a choice: go to jail or be admitted wait-free into treatment programs without facing any criminal charges.
Noella Sudbury, Criminal Justice Advisory Council coordinator and an author of the grant, said in an interview prior to Tuesday's press conference that for some, Operation Diversion was exactly the intervention they needed.
However, many others who where ushered to the front of the line at coveted treatment centers walked straight out the back door.
"They're choosing treatment over jail, because that's the option presented now, but really (they have) no intention of completing the program," Sudbury said. "(It) lacks the structure needed — a case manager, officers, attorneys — to really help them see the value of these programs."
The answer, Sudbury said, is a more defined path for them to follow, built up with encompassing support and services.
Through the specialty court, those who choose to receive treatment rather than go to jail would begin by being charged and entering a plea, which would be held in abeyance throughout the program and dismissed when they complete it. They would still be given immediate access to treatment, Sudbury said, and as more funding becomes available, be connected with housing and employment opportunities.
The team designing the court has also consulted with prosecutors and judges across the Wasatch Front about the possibility of transferring ongoing cases in other jurisdictions to the Operation Diversion court in order to allow participants to resolve all of their outstanding charges at once.
It's a complicated innovation that Sudbury acknowledges she's apprehensive about.
"What we see with these individuals is they don't just have the charges they're picked up on on the day of Operation Diversion," Sudbury said. "So can we together, with all of the attorneys and case managers and court team … consolidate all of those cases, and say one of the advantages of this program is we're going to deal with all of those legal issues."
"It's really, 'Do you want to change your life?' Because this could change your life," Sudbury said.
The court program comes with a $2 million price tag to get started, with hopes of receiving another $2.9 million next year, according to the grant application.
Also on the county's wish list is $1.2 million to support the Intensive Supervised Probation program for those with substance abuse problems at high risk of reoffending. The relatively new program is showing positive early results, and is at capacity with 200 participants, Sudbury said. The grant would allow for 170 new openings.
Another $324,000 has been requested to open 10 new treatment beds for use through the county's successful drug court program in order to help cut down wait times for the long list of defendants hoping to get in.
And $85,000 is being sought to create a task force within the Unified Police Department specifically for responding to mental health related calls, modeled after a program in use in Los Angeles. The department fields approximately 3,500 documented mental health calls each year, Sudbury notes. The specialized team, including a full-time clinician, would not only be dispatched to mental health emergencies but would keep records intended to prepare officers for future calls regarding the same person.
If funding is awarded to get the programs off the ground this year, the county intends to seek more grant money in 2018 to keep building them up.
Gill said Tuesday that if the Justice Reinvestment Initiative continues devoid of funding and instead becomes nothing more than an avenue to incarcerate those in need in jail rather than prison, it has fallen short of its goals.
Last year, the Utah Association of Counties had asked the Legislature for nearly $17 million for behavioral and mental health services across the state, but lawmakers only set aside the $6 million now up for grabs.
Salt Lake County is absorbing much of the cost of its Justice Reinvestment Initiative programs into existing budgets, Sudbury said, but which elements of the county's four priorities will become reality depends on how much grant money is awarded.
The decision is expected by July 1.
"I'm not sure we're going to be able to fund all of these programs and so, even though we've had a lot of conversations about these ideas and what they would look like, I think everybody knows that we might not get all the money and so let's see what we have and then we can really work out some of those details," Sudbury said.