1 of 2
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Josh Parkin is hugged by treatment coordinator Rosie Jensen after he successfully completed "drug court."

PROVO — Tristy Diamond couldn't hide her smile as she stood in a Provo courtroom recently as one of the latest graduates of "drug court."

"How many clean days?" asked Rosie Jensen, drug-court coordinator for the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse.

"Three-hundred and ninety-five," Diamond replied. "Drug court was the best thing that ever happened to me. It completely changed my life."

"We love you a lot," her family called from the audience. "We're so glad to have her back in our family."

Fellow drug-court graduate Josh Parkin told the audience he's been clean for 370 days.

"I want to thank everybody in the program and in treatment," he said. "Life's better today than I ever thought it could be."

His wife, parents, in-laws and friends stood to congratulate him.

"I want to thank Judge Taylor and Rosie for giving me my husband and the children's father back," said Parkin's wife, Shari.

It's responses like these that make Utah County prosecutors, defense attorneys and substance-abuse treatment providers wonder why the state is pulling the funding for this specific drug-court population.

The program

Across Utah, there are 22 different drug courts that work with addicts, requiring them to undergo daily or weekly urinalysis, classes, counseling and weekly or monthly check-ins with a judge.

Utah spends around $4.5 million annually, although the state could easily spend double that to treat more clients, said Brent Kelsey, assistant director of the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

Utah County's court has been in action for nearly a dozen years, catering to the first-time offenders like Diamond and Parkin, who committed serious crimes but are not yet deeply entrenched in criminal behaviors.

"We thought it was best to take first-time offenders," said Sherry Ragan, a deputy Utah County attorney who previously worked with drug court. "This way, we catch people before they commit new crimes."

When an individual gets slapped with a felony drug-related charge, be it possession, use, theft of drugs or money to buy them, or even forging prescriptions, they can be screened for drug court. Violent offenders are not considered.

If approved, the client pleads guilty. But the plea is held in abeyance, meaning that if they complete drug court, the guilty plea is never actually entered, the case is dismissed and the charge can eventually be expunged from their records. But if they commit new crimes or don't abide by the treatment rules, they fail drug court and are sentenced on their charges.

Last year, Utah County expanded drug court to include a program for repeat felony offenders. Nicknamed "last-chance drug court," this court is targeted toward addicts with lengthy criminal histories and higher levels of "criminality."

These are the men and women who have failed in every other program and get one last chance at treatment before they get sent to prison. If they succeed, they stay out. If not, their pleas are entered, and they are sentenced.

Utah County's "last-chance" drug court has only been going on for a year, but already has shown to be effective, Ragan said.

The change

"There's an emerging body of evidence ... that drug courts should serve high-risk, high-need individuals — that's where the model is effective," Kelsey said. "We don't have enough dollars to treat everyone, so we have to make decisions about where are these dollars best spent."

Those high-risk, high-need people are the ones in Utah County's last-chance drug court and, according to research also cited by officials at the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts, the ones who benefit most from drug court.

Thus as of July 1, those are the only drug courts the state will be funding.

"What we're learning is that first-time offenders are likely to do really well in treatment and under supervision but without all the additional structure and expense of drug court," said Richard Schwermer, assistant state court administrator and statewide drug-court coordinator.

It costs around $4,500 for someone to participate in drug court for a year, compared to $27,000 a year to incarcerate them, Kelsey said. However, it's even cheaper to get someone treatment alone, without drug court.

"There's absolutely no question that drug courts work," Schwermer said. "There's absolutely no question that drug courts save money over any other possible intervention, but now (research) is getting even more sophisticated ... (and it) tells us what parts of the drug-court process are important."

And the answer is clear, Schwermer said. High-risk, high-need clients perform well, and are the best recipients of state funds.

"I'm accountable to the Legislature for this money," Schwermer said. "I want to assure them that I'm only using this expensive (treatment) for people who can use it the most."

Now, screening into drug court will be a bit tighter, ensuring that those who are severely addicted get the help they need, while those with less severe problems will be diverted to other programs.

And there is treatment available for anyone who needs it, Kelsey insists, although he acknowledges the waiting lists are often quite long.

"There is treatment out there, that's true on paper," said Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman. "But we only have enough resources to treat a relatively small (population)."

Because the need keeps increasing, Buhman said he wonders why it comes down to money.

"I understand what the research says about being most effectively spent," he said. "But part of the program should be who merits the expenditure of tax dollars. I think there should be a balance."

Besides, drug court doesn't just eliminate costs of incarceration.

"Those people who remain addicted to drugs have children going into foster homes ... have a hard time holding jobs, a whole variety of societal costs," Buhman said.

"There's only so much money," said Joe Chamberlain, an Adult Probation and Parole officer who coordinates with 4th District Court for the last-chance drug court. "We have to figure out a criteria where we can help the people who need it the most. (But) there's a limited pot of money, we can't help everybody. That's just an unfortunate fact. In a perfect world, everybody who needs substance abuse treatment would get it."

Adjusting to the change

Although many say they're frustrated with the change, they knew it was coming.

Bruce Chandler, program services manager over the county's in-house treatment programs, indicated the state had been strongly hinting at such a change for several months, although on July 1, the move was final.

But is it a good idea for Utah County?

"No and yes, and yes and no and no and yes and yes and no," Chandler said, indicating how conflicted he is about the switch. "I think ... (drug court has) made a difference in a lot of people's lives, we've saved the county and the state a whole lot of money and (kept) people from being re-incarcerated."

However, Chandler also acknowledges the fact that the tougher population often costs society a lot of money.

"There are people far less likely to change their lives without a pretty serious intervention like drug court," he said.

But what about those who aren't the "tougher population," like Diamond?

"The toughest part is the concern ...(for) the ones we know are extremely high need of treatment, but are low risk for the criminality, and how are they going to access treatment," Chandler said.

That's what defense attorney Gunda Jarvis wants to know.

"If it works, we're helping people, we're changing lives, leave it alone," Jarvis said, who just finished several years working with drug-court clients. "We're catching offenders when they're just getting started so they don't end up in that position where they are addicts and they have been convicted of a felony, then are basically screwed. If they get convicted of a felony, it takes everything away. They think, 'Well, I might as well just give up. I'm no good.'"

And once they give up, it's really hard to help them change, Jarvis said.

"It's like we're telling them, 'Go, commit a felony and (then) we'll help you,'" Jarvis said. "I can't believe that we do that, that we're willing to do that."

Defense attorney Stephen Frasier now works with drug court clients and said he sees pros and cons to the tougher requirements for drug court.

"I've had ... clients (who say) 'This (charge) is a serious wake-up call for me,'" he said. "There's no way they need drug court, it's way too restrictive. They would do well on their own ... outside of the court's power."

That out-of-court treatment may be essentially the same, Frasier said. They just won't report to a judge each week.

"If they can fix themselves through treatment, great," Frasier said. "If they can't and they re-offend, they'll end up in drug court."

Deputy Utah County Attorney Jason Sant took over drug court after Ragan and wonders if the changes will truly address the growing drug-addiction problem.

"It's much better to try to cut it off and get them the treatment they need upfront, so they don't become hard-core criminals," he said, "(rather than) waiting until they become a hard-core criminal then address the drug problem they have."

And for Diamond, that quick intervention changed her entire life, she says — something that might not happen again for someone like her who won't qualify under the new conditions.

"I'm a mother again, daughter again," she said, beaming at her three young children. "It's the very best thing that could have ever happened to me."

E-mail: [email protected]