SALT LAKE CITY — After sifting through Operation Rio Grande's more than 1,000 arrests, 35 people have qualified to take advantage of the county's brand new "specialty court" and substance abuse treatment beds.
Those 35 people will have their first day in court this week for the chance to wipe their drug charges from their record — and, in a matter of days, will be filling nearly all of the 37 beds that just became available last week.
It's an "exciting" beginning to a program county officials hope will help give people struggling with addiction and clogging up the county's overcrowded jail an incentive to both sober up and clean up their legal records, said Noella Sudbury, the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Council coordinator.
The 35 were selected after a unique "assessment day" on Thursday, Sudbury said, when a team of more than 40 lawyers, social workers and public defenders spent more than 12 hours going "cell to cell" in the Salt Lake County Jail, screening a pool of about 300 potential candidates for the new program.
"We encountered a lot of people who were really surprised," Sudbury said. "A lot of tears and emotion, big smiles from people who said, 'I wasn't sure about what Operation Rio Grande was all about, but I've been waiting for this.'"
The specialty court is designed to give people struggling with addiction an incentive: complete treatment and your drug charges will be dismissed.
The process starts by being charged and entering a plea, which would be held in abeyance throughout the program and dismissed when they finish treatment, Sudbury said.
Their first day in 3rd District Court will be Wednesday, Sudbury said, after an orientation on Tuesday.
Over the next week or so, Sudbury said those 35 individuals will be transported to their residential treatment beds, nearly filling the 37 beds that county officials worked over the last month to open.
The remaining two will also be filed by other individuals identified in Friday's assessment, but weren't eligible for the specialty court, Sudbury said.
Of the 300 initially identified as possible candidates for the court program, social workers and legal defenders worked with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office to narrow the pool to about 60, based on their cases. Those who have active sexual offense cases or have been violent weren't eligible, Sudbury said.
Those 60 were then narrowed down to 35 after assessment for a variety of reasons, Sudbury said, including declining to participate, being ineligible for release from jail, or being unable to participate because of medical issues.
Others were also eligible for other programs — such as regular drug court, or "lower-risk" programs, Sudbury said.
But when comparing the 35 eligible for specialty court to more than 1,000 arrests since Operation Rio Grande began about a month ago, could some people who could benefit from treatment be falling through the cracks?
Sudbury acknowledged that 37 treatment beds aren't nearly enough to accommodate the need, but she noted that more than 240 beds are expected to open by the end of 2017, funded within the state's $67 million budget for Operation Rio Grande and about $6 million anticipated from Medicaid waivers that state officials say are expected to be approved by the end of the year.
Those treatment beds will "more than double" the county's current treatment capacity, Sudbury noted.
"We're working really hard to expand treatment options as quickly as we can," said Tim Whalen, Salt Lake County's behavioral health director. "Certainly we want more treatment quicker, but at the same time bringing on new treatment takes a little time. We're going as fast as we can."
The full specialty court program, also funded within Operation Rio Grande's budget, is expected to hold up to 125 people at a time, Sudbury added, and county officials are planning on conducting another "assessment day" in a few weeks after 24 more treatment beds are opened at the end of September or the beginning of October.
It remains to be seen, however, how effective the specialty court program will be.
Though county officials hope the new specialty court will give people the legal structure, support and incentive to succeed, Sudbury acknowledged that some will fail, due to the difficult nature of addiction.
"I'm sure we'll lose some," she said. "Some will bail out in the beginning, and some will bail out as they go, but we're hoping a lot of people will stick with it."