SALT LAKE CITY — In its fourth week, Operation Rio Grande's arrests have mounted to over 1,000 — but that wasn't why county leaders were celebrating Thursday.
At nearly the same time law enforcement officers conducted a major drug raid of a Salt Lake City home at 6 a.m., a team of lawyers and social workers began work inside the Salt Lake County Jail that has never been done before, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams announced in a news conference.
"This," the mayor said, "is phase two in action."
The team of criminal justice workers began making assessments of people arrested in Operation Rio Grande who are eligible for the new "specialty drug court" that will be launched next week. The new court's goal is to streamline efforts to help drug users embroiled in the court system to not only sober up, but also clean up their criminal records.
At the same time, 37 new treatment beds for substance abusers became available Thursday, McAdams said, which will pull people eligible for treatment out of jail and free up jail space for more-violent criminals.
The 37 beds are the first of 256 new detox and treatment beds slated to open by the end of 2017.
Of the 37 beds, 26 will expand capacity for the Odyssey House, 10 for First Step House, and one for House of Hope, according to county officials.
First Step House Director Shawn McMillen said the beds were created in a space originally used as transitional housing.
"Public safety in the Rio Grande area, including less crime and fewer victims of crime, is one of the reasons for the remarkable partnership between city, county and state leaders," McAdams said. "And the results of this partnership are obvious. Much of the chaos, lawlessness and danger is subsiding."
As of Thursday morning, 1,023 arrests had been made since the beginning of Operation Rio Grande nearly four weeks ago, according to Utah Highway Patrol Maj. Jess Anderson.
Of those, 180 were for felonies, 843 were for misdemeanors, Anderson said, noting that just eight cases required use of force.
The major also said as of Monday, 57 of those arrested have been arrested twice, six have been arrested three times and two have been arrested four times.
Also, 676 have been released either due to jail overcrowding, on bail or for court, according to Justin Hoyal, chief deputy of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office. He has said those who have been released due to jail space issues are prioritized as nonviolent offenders.
Anderson noted, however, 618 of those arrested have said they would accept treatment.
"Everything we have learned after years of trying to deal with these problems tells us that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem," McAdams said. "The short-term gain of locking nonviolent people up brings long-term pain, as the fallout from arresting people and jailing individuals plays out in our community."
He said county officials learned from last year's smaller scale effort, Operation Diversion, that "more structure" was needed to help people succeed in treatment, which is why his team has proposed the new specialty court.
In the specialty court, if defendants complete treatment, then their guilty plea can be lifted from the record, the mayor said.
"That is a real carrot for them to complete the treatment," McAdams said.
But with roughly 250 treatment beds coming online over the next six months, is that enough to fill the demand for more than 600 wanting treatment?
McAdams acknowledged that "certainly more treatment beds will be needed," but the 256 beds will be "significant and come close to doubling" the county's existing treatment capability.
"It's major," he said.
He noted that because people normally cycle out of the treatment beds in six months, those 200 bed should be able to serve more than 200 people over the next several years.
"As we get people in the drug court program there will be a waitlist, but as we start moving people through, I think we can catch up to the demand," he said.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said the treatment beds should help her jail prioritize space "for the most violent criminals."
"Jail space should be prioritized for the most violent criminals," she said. "I appreciate Salt Lake County is committing to balancing both the need for treatment and also the need to house criminals."
House Speaker Greg Hughes said that while many people are being released from jail, those arrests "are not a waste of time."
"Our law enforcement officers down there saw a change in behavior just by the prospect of the booking restrictions changing," he said, also noting that the jail can act as a front door to services for some who need it.
Also on Thursday, Salt Lake City Mayor Biskupski announced she had signed a lease agreement between the city and the state to close a portion of Rio Grande Street to both vehicle and foot traffic, allowing the area to create a "safe space" for people seeking services from the Road Home and Catholic Community Services.