James Hurtado

Drug Court participant James Hurtado said he used to be an “absent father” but that his relationships with his kids now continue to improve. [Photo courtesy of James Hurtado]

The first drug court in Utah was established in Third District Court in 1996 as “part of an ongoing effort to combat the rising number of drug-related crimes,” according to the Utah Courts website.

“It seemed as if traditional methods of dealing with addicts such as strict probation or mandatory imprisonment did not attack the fundamental problem of addiction,” the website states, adding that now there are “an estimated 700-800 participants statewide and hundreds of successful graduates.”

One of those “successful graduates” is Tara Wilder, who completed Seventh District Adult Drug Court in 2013.

Seventh District Court began Family Drug Court on July 2002 and Adult Drug Court on January 2005, according to Seventh District Drug Court Judge Mary Manley. The Seventh District Court services Grand County in addition to Carbon, Emery and San Juan counties.

Family drug court differs from adult drug court in that it serves families with parents who need substance use disorder treatment and who are involved with the child welfare system.

“Drug court is a wonderful opportunity to gain the skills and tools necessary for a life in sobriety. It’s also an alternative to being sent to jail or prison,” said Wilder. “It’s the wonderful, structured platform that held me up while I completed the work that changed my own life.”

Today, Wilder works as a case manager at Four Corners Community Behavioral Health (FCCBH), an agency whose clientele includes participants in the drug court program.

Wilder said, “Participants in either drug court program—family or adult drug court—are supported by a team of licensed clinicians, law enforcement, Adult Probation and Parole (AP&P), and various other agencies when necessary.”

The requirements for participants change throughout the program.

“For example,” Wilder said, “in Phase 1 you are required to submit urine samples daily, attend court hearings every other week, attend three self-help groups per week, (and) attend treatment weekly, which is often approximately nine hours of group psychotherapy sessions as well as individual sessions.”

Drug court participants receive a handbook that is nearly 60 pages long that covers the program’s rules and regulations, as well some forms that are commonly used, such as the Weekly Drug Court Report, in which participants record information such as their work hours, community service hours and court-mandated meetings. According to the handbook, participants are required to show this form in court.

Handbook regulations around every aspect of the drug court program are specific and detailed. For example:

“You must engage in 40 hours of work, school, community service hours, or a combination of these each week,” the handbook states. “Any change in your employment status must be reported to AP&P within 48 hours. During times of unemployment, you will report weekly to AP&P. You will provide written verification of hours to the drug court staff no later than the Monday prior to your drug court appearance at 4:00 p.m. If you do not turn in your hours by this deadline, they will not count towards your weekly requirement.”

The expectations during each phase of the drug court program are likewise thoroughly described in the handbook.

Wilder said participants are simultaneously participating in drug court while also meeting the requirements of probation.

“Drug court participants do not have parole officers; they have probation officers,” she said. “Part of the team includes a law enforcement officer called a drug court tracker that visits participants in their homes, at their places of employment and also functions as a supportive lifeline…The tracker ensures the safety of both the community and the participant.”

Brandon Black said he has been the Seventh District drug court tracker for a little over three years. While he is with the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, he said he works closely with FCCBH, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and AP&P.

“I’m a law enforcement officer that stops by participants in drug court…basically to do compliancy checks and make sure participants are following the rules of the program,” Black said. “I think drug court is a very beneficial program that gives people who suffer from addiction help to counter their addictions and their cravings. It gives them the tools for life, not just during the program.”

“There are sometimes what is referred to as ‘sanctions,’ which are decided by the team when a participant is struggling with the obligations of drug court,” Wilder said. “The goal of a sanction, as well as the severity, is decided on by the entire team and is ultimately up to the Seventh District Drug Court Judge Mary Manley. The goal is to keep everyone safe and encourage personal accountability, personal responsibility as well as the opportunity to growth and healing.”

Manley spoke to the broad web of agencies that work together to make drug court effective.

“Drug court is a rigorous and very structured program that would not be sustainable without the collaborative efforts of the drug court team,” she said. “This team includes first and foremost the participants themselves, and the agencies that have been at the table since the beginning and who have passionately contributed both time and resources: Four Corners Community Behavioral Health, Grand County Sheriff's Office, Division of Child and Family Services, County Attorney, Assistant Attorney General, Adult Parole and Probation, Public Defender, Guardian ad Litem, and the Seventh District Court.” 

The National Institute of Justice—the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice—reports on its website that it has evaluated the processes, outcomes and costs of drug courts since the first one began in Florida in 1993.

Its findings include lower recidivism (re-arrest) rates and lower costs compared to traditional criminal justice processing,

Participant James Hurtado had words of praise for the drug court program. He said he entered the program at a low point in his life: he was homeless, out of work and out of touch with his family, including his children.

“Today, every aspect of my life has improved,” he said.

See the full in-depth interview with Hurtado about his experience leading up to drug court and as a participant in the program on page 5 in this issue.

“Drug court in and of itself doesn’t change lives, but it does provide a supportive environment and effective tools for a participant to change their lives and to find purpose and meaning in a life of recovery,” Manley said.  “It is one of the great privileges of my work…to be able to witness this transformation time and time again from a front-row seat.”