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Operation Rio Grande: A Graphical Analysis - Part 2, Drug Court

Updated: Mar 13, 2022


UCJI has no interest in mischaracterizing, tuning, or otherwise ignoring the successes of ORG. We endeavor to recognize and highlight wins where they exist. Conversely and important to the overarching discourse surrounding law enforcement activities, we must highlight the deficits and shortcomings as well. Performance evaluation and monitoring requires as much.

To that extent, a good faith effort was made as part of this analysis to better understand the inner workings of the drug court program. Namely, what the pipeline from an arrest on the street to enrollment in the program looks like, how one goes about getting enrolled in the program e.g is it compulsory or voluntary, as well as verification of the numbers I see in the only data I have: booking data and the State's own reported numbers.

Contacted as part of this process:

  • Salt Lake County Justice Court: the presumptive first stop for arraignment after being arrested in ORG; was told to contact the 3rd District Court

  • 3rd District Court: couldn't get in touch with any individual who even remotely touches the drug court program, was told to talk to the judges that administer the program

  • 3rd District's Judges who administer the program: 4 judges who administer the program, their clerks refused to speak with me; told me to contact the justice court or the DA

  • Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office: left a message for the prosecutor responsible for drug court, requested a call back, never received one

This post will be updated with corrections if any of the aforementioned parties proffer information that can materially change the analysis.


The second phase for ORG was intended to be the treatment portion that followed the enforcement action. This phase was marketed as an effort to "... Support people struggling with mental illness & drug addiction so they can return to a path of self reliance [sic]." To be sure, this is an honorable effort and one for which we most definitely need added focus.


According to the Salt Lake County's District Attorney's office, in order to be enrolled in the drug court program, you must be charged with a felony-level drug charge and not have a violent criminal history. We cannot infer from the data available if those arrested as part of ORG had violent criminal histories. We can, however, use the charges they were booked with to infer somewhat.

Crudely examining line-by-line the charges for which individuals were booked from 8/17/17 - 8/31/17, and then again from 9/1/17 - 9/30/17, we break down eligibility for the drug court program with eligible, ineligible, and excluded.


Accounts for individuals arrested who were then remanded to the custody of an agency outside of the Salt Lake County drug court's jurisdiction. So even if they qualified based on the charges, they would not be eligible.


Includes those that are explicitly disqualified from drug court eligibility due to charges or warrants for violent offenses. In addition, those that didn't qualify based on not being charged with felony-level drug crimes are included.


Includes those that meet the requirements based on the information we have.

Altogether, we have disappointing numbers:

We see that the vast majority of those arrested in the first two weeks of ORG were not eligible, based on their crimes, for drug court. Another 6% were not eligible due to custodial agreements. The 13% that were eligible, ~113 individuals, seem to be underrepresented by ORG's reporting of total enrollments for the same period, where only 25 of those 113, or 22%, were enrolled in the program.

Examining a full month of ORG data shows the trend was largely unchanged from the first two weeks of the Operation, to the first full calendar month in September. Comparing the data of those that were presumptively eligible in September (~67) to ORG's stated enrollments for the next month (October), we see a slight uptick to 25% enrollment of those eligible. While laudable, it's still disappointing to see ~80% of those arrested were definitively ineligible. If we consolidate those that were excluded with those that were prima facie ineligible, we're at nearly 90% of those arrested not being eligible for the program.

The state seems to have fallen short in drug court enrollments. According to the state's own published numbers, as of July 2019, only 150 individuals, of the thousands arrested as part of ORG, pled into the drug court program. To be clear, drug court itself works. But Operation Rio Grande failed to adequately address the problem.

Further compounding this issue is the decided decline in enrollments from August 2017 - July 2019 (figure below). And this seems to align with a recent report published by the Salt Lake Tribune in which their investigation found that 80% of the money earmarked for ORG went to enforcement. What if instead of a focus on enforcement, that money had been used to expand the drug court program?

Targeted Adult Medicaid (TAM)

Conflict of interest: owing to my current employment with the Utah Department of Health, Bureau of Long Term Services and Support, I am uncomfortable in making any effort to impartially assess the TAM outcomes of this portion of Phase 2.


The objective of Phase 2 was to again, "... Support people struggling with mental illness & drug addiction so they can return to a path of self reliance [sic]." The program further specified this would be accomplished by increasing the "... Number of individuals entering into treatment through the new drug court program as a result of Operation Rio Grande. The number is influenced by bed capacity and assessment activities." One cannot ignore that the stated objective does not align with the way in which the state used its allocated funds for this operation.

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