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County’s “Operation Diversion” breaks cycle of drugs and criminality in troubled areas

Oct 27, 2016 04:14PM ● Published by Bryan Scott

Aimee Winder Newton

County Council District 3


One of the greatest roles of Salt Lake County government is protecting the safety of the public. Since I began serving on the County Council I’ve been impressed with the men and women in our Sheriff’s Office, and in the Unified Police Department. 

Recently, our law enforcement officials joined with Salt Lake City to initiate a massive sweep of the Rio Grande area in downtown Salt Lake City, called “Operation Diversion.” This was a coordinated effort to disrupt the drug trade among the area’s homeless population.

The operation was fairly straightforward –anyone caught using or dealing drugs was arrested. Prior to Operation Diversion, officers spent weeks watching the area to identify those who were dealers and those whose addictions were being exploited. Those who exhibited criminal intent were taken to jail.

Addicts were arrested, but instead of going directly to jail, they were taken to a temporary receiving center. Once there, they were screened and assessed, and then given an alternative to incarceration - drug treatment. The goal was to connect drug addicts with treatment to help them break free from their addiction during their arrest. Without this alternative, someone might serve their sentence, then be back out on the street with the very same issues that landed them there in the first place. 

Generally those with substance abuse issues have to wait months to get into a treatment facility. The hope is that this approach will help interrupt the cycle of incarceration and drug use that plagues this population, while still holding them accountable. 

This is an example of the philosophy of “alternatives to incarceration,” which emphasizes treatment for people addicted to drugs so they can get better, rather than just sitting in a jail cell with no help. Operation Diversion was the first time we’ve done it this way by getting addicts directly into treatment.

One of the big challenges we are facing in this arena is a “revolving door” so to speak of people committing the same offenses over and over again, and just cycling through our criminal justice system repeatedly. Periods of homelessness, drug abuse, and incarceration can follow one after the other. We need to disrupt that cycle. 

I’m pleased that the County was able to play a role supporting this operation, which included $1.2 million of our behavioral health funds to contract with more treatment centers. I had the opportunity to tour the receiving center during its operation, and was impressed with the efficiency of the center, as well as the general mood. Among those brought in, there seemed to be a genuine desire to get better and leave their problems in the past.

I asked to interview some of the arrestees and was able to sit down and talk to them. One was so excited to be going directly to treatment. The other one was pretty annoyed to be there, but was still choosing to try drug treatment. We’ll continue to track the progress of this model and draw good lessons from its successes to apply in the future.

I believe we can slowly chip away at this problem, and collaborative operations like these that disrupt the drug trade while connecting people with resources to help them get back on their feet are a key way to do that.  

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