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Denial of extra grant money shelves county's plan for 'Operation Diversion' court

Denial of extra grant money shelves county's plan for 'Operation Diversion' court

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Despite calls from county leaders hoping to fight the devastating impacts of addiction, Salt Lake County was awarded just over half the grant money it had requested from the state.

After receiving just under $2 million of the $3.6 million requested to fill the gap left between criminal justice reform and corresponding treatment, the county is now looking for the most efficient and effective way to spend the money.

But without the full amount, plans have already been shelved to establish a specialty "Diversion Court" for those detained in Operation Diversion efforts near the downtown homeless shelter. Police and political leaders have called the program an attempt to separate vulnerable individuals in need of help from the criminals who prey on their problems.

The funding gap leaves a number of questions about how Operation Diversion will be impacted, said Noella Sudbury, Criminal Justice Advisory Council coordinator and an author of the county's grant application.

"There's huge need out there, and not getting all of the dollars that we hoped we would get is going to limit how many people can access treatment, that's just the reality," Sudbury said.

'A difficult process to work through'

Brent Kelsey, assistant director of the state's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, was a member of the six-person committee that reviewed 24 applications for funding intended to support "prevention, treatment and recovery" efforts in order to reduce recidivism.

While $6 million was available, the committee faced $11 million in requests, Kelsey said.

"The process, to me, points out that there is tremendous unmet need for these services," Kelsey said. "It was a very difficult decision and a difficult process to work through."

Despite the high amount in requests, Kelsey noted, "$6 million is the most new money that our system has received in the 15 years that I have worked for the state division, and so it is a tremendous opportunity, and it shows the Legislature's committment to building an evidence-based behavioral health care system."

As the committee reviewed the applications, all requests for equipment, computers or wages for police or prosecutors along with requests backing training were eliminated, Kelsey said, in lieu of applications that directly funded prevention and treatment efforts.

The committee is looking to support training requests through other sources, Kelsey noted.

Ultimately, six counties — Juab, Grand, Iron, Kane, Summit and Tooele — did not receive any funding, according to a breakdown of the allocations. Salt Lake County received the largest award, followed by Utah County, which is projected to receive just over $1 million.

Specific details about the individual requests were not available Friday.

Splitting the money

With Diversion Court off the table, the county is looking to split the funding it received between the remaining three prongs of its plan: building up its thriving new Intensive Supervised Parole program, establish a specialized mental health response unit within the Unified Police Department and open new treatment beds for the county's existing drug court program.

The grant money supports programs and services intended to back up the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which two years ago dropped a number of low-level felony drug crimes down to misdemeanors in hopes of stemming the steady flow of drug offenders headed to the Utah State Prison.

The decrease in penalties was meant to be accompanied by increased opportunities for treatment and intervention paid for in large part through Medicaid expansion, which later failed, leaving the counties carrying the weight of underfunded behavioral health programs and overbooked jails.

Salt Lake County's bid for $3.6 million of the $6 million being made available through the state came with a plea last month from its mayor, sheriff and top prosecutor. The county's estimated allotment was $1.9 million, on track with what was ultimately awarded.

At the time, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams warned that without money to back treatment and motivate change, efforts to reform the justice system would be worthless.

"What we know is that without funding for treatment, public safety will be jeopardized and the Justice Reinvestment Initiative will fail," McAdams said at the time.

McAdams was out of town Friday and could not be reached for comment on the allocation.


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