Salt Lake County Drug Court Celebrates 20 Years of Success

Salt Lake County commemorated the 20th anniversary of its drug court system with an awards luncheon to recognize the achievements of a local criminal justice initiative that improves lives, enhances public safety and saves money.

In drug court, nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders receive closely supervised treatment and counseling as an alternative to jail. Drug court participants enter a guilty plea that is held in abeyance until they successfully complete the program, which is a minimum of one year.

In addition to treatment and counseling, drug court participants submit to frequent and random drug testing, are monitored closely by case management personnel and law enforcement, and make regular appearances before a judge to assess their progress. 

Researchers have concluded that drug courts are better at preventing crime than jail time, more effective at stopping the cycle of addiction than treatment alone and less costly than being locked up:

  • Drug courts reduce crime: nationwide, 75 percent of drug court graduates stayed out of jail for at least two years after completing the program.
  • Drug courts end addiction: nationally, combining drug court with outpatient treatment reduced methamphetamine use by more than 50 percent.
  • Drug courts save money: in Salt Lake County, drug court’s services cost an average of $22 per day per person and incarceration costs $95 per day per person; with an average of 288 clients in drug court rather than in jail every month, the program saves taxpayers over a half-million dollars every month.

The story of Salt Lake County’s drug court began in 1995, after local attorneys Craig Bunker, Scott Reed and Greg Skordas attended a conference in Las Vegas that introduced them to the concept of a “problem-solving court” that brought high-risk, high-need drug offenders (those who were most likely to recidivate because of their drug addiction) through a legal track focused on rehabilitation.

Within a year, Judge Dennis Fuchs from the Third District Court applied to Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and received approval to preside over Utah’s first drug court. The court was very successful and caught the attention of then-Governor Michael Leavitt, who was instrumental in bringing the drug court concept to Utah’s seven other district courts. There are currently 20 juvenile and adult drug courts in Utah that serve over 700 participants statewide.

In addition to Skordas, Reed, and Fuchs, today’s luncheon honors: John Hill, former director of the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association; Candace Nenow, former director of Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services and the late Bud Ellet, former chief deputy of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.

“Drug court has been shown to be a better approach than the endless revolving door of people with substance abuse problems in and out of jail. It results in fewer victims of crime, better results for the offender to turn his or her life around and more efficient use of scarce tax dollars. We’re fortunate that these far-sighted individuals brought this innovation to our criminal justice system,” said Mayor Ben McAdams.