SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah public policy organization is decrying the use of tax dollars to pay for assessment and treatment of people convicted of driving under the influence or DUI.

The Sutherland Institute's video report also takes issue with a government contractor conducting assessments the think tank contends could readily be handled in the private sector.

But a local substance abuse official said tax dollars are not used to fund the assessments.

Pat Fleming, director of Salt Lake County's Division of Behavioral Health Services, said state statute requires people convicted of felonies and some misdemeanor offenses to pay a 90 percent surcharge on criminal fines, penalties and forfeitures imposed by the courts. The surcharge is used to fund licensed drug and alcohol rehabilitation, education, assessment and supervision of people convicted of DUI.

Fleming said the surcharge is not a tax, but a fee assessed on top of court-imposed fines and other costs.

Salt Lake County contracts with Assessment & Referral Services to assess people convicted of DUI to determine appropriate levels of intervention and/or treatment. ARS is a clinic within the University of Utah's Department of Psychiatry. ARS was the successful bidder to provide the service in a competitive selection process, Fleming said. ARS does not provide treatment services.

Previously, a wide array of private providers conducted assessment services. However, some of those providers also offered treatment services, which some judges said posed conflicts of interest.

Instead of cutting out a broad array of private substance abuse assessment services, concerns about conflicts could have been resolved through policymaking, said David Buer, the Sutherland Institute's director of communications.

"In the past, these assessments were done by private companies. Why not stick with that system instead of having taxpayers foot the bill?" said Buer.

The Sutherland Institute is a self-described conservative, state-based, independent public policy organization that promotes responsible citizenship and strives to protect the cause of freedom and constructively influence Utah decision makers.

Fleming said the Sutherland Institute report suggests philosophical differences how assessment and treatment services could be funded or structured.

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State statute, however, spells out the intent of lawmakers on this issue. Legislative policy language describes DUI as a "major problem in this state and that the problem demands a comprehensive detection, intervention, education, and treatment program … through public and private agencies."

Again, Fleming said, state lawmakers made clear they wanted offenders to pay for needed assessments and treatment. "The Legislature said, 'We want to put this on the backs of offenders to pay for services if they need them.' That's why it's not a tax" funding these services, he said.