ODGEN — Fewer people are enrolling in Utah's drug courts after the state launched a criminal justice reform three years ago that reduced some drug felonies to misdemeanors.
Participation is down by about 10 percent across the approximately 60 Utah drug courts, which are designed to give addicts a path to recovery, the Standard-Examiner reported.
Under the drug court program, a person could plead guilty to some drug offenses, and the charges would be dismissed if that person completes a rehabilitation program lasting 12 to 18 months.
The program is typically very structured with a schedule that includes substance abuse treatment, court appearances and frequent urine tests, said Kathy Morris, the former coordinator of the Davis County drug court in Farmington. If participants fail drug tests or miss appointments, they could be sent back to jail.
Since the Davis County drug court began about 20 years ago, 793 people have completed the program and stayed clean for at least five years, Morris said.
For the drug court in the Ogden area, enrollment is down by about 30 percent, Weber County Attorney Chris Allred said.
"It's the most effective treatment I've seen anywhere, but I don't think it works without the leverage of a felony," Allred said.
Some people are choosing to spend a few days in jail on a misdemeanor drug offense instead of going through the rigorous drug court program, he said.
The decline in drug court participation is linked to Utah's 2015 Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which reduced penalties for some offenses such as drug possession, said Jeff Marrott, spokesman for the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
Morris said he believes the lighter penalty is ultimately a negative.
"I personally don't believe it's a good thing," Morris said. "We are kind of causing some harm to people. Before, people were more willing and wanting to be in the program with a felony hanging over their head."