Autumn Thatcher
Autumn Thatcher
Utah's Drug Court

Ghostwriting: Utah Bar Journal



Utah's Drug Court

Utah's Drug Court

Read the article as it appeared in print.

The year 2015 marks a milestone in Utah: It’s the twentieth anniversary of the implementation of drug court. As a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, I have seen what drug addiction has done to defendants who are facing years in jail because of crimes committed due to the need to feed their addiction. Their lives fall apart at the seams and crumble around them because they are unable to break a vicious cycle. We may have lost the war on drugs, but we can help break the cycle of addiction. Drug courts brought a new approach to how we treat addicts in the criminal justice system. Drug courts provide hope, treatment, and resources for change and support. As we approach the twentieth anniversary of drug courts in Utah, I want to acknowledge and applaud the judges and lawyers who have helped make the drug court system successful. 

How It All Began

“One of the biggest misconceptions that [is] out there is that people never really truly recover from having a substance abuse problem and being in the criminal justice system.” 

–Ali Shelley, 2009 drug court graduate 

The concept of drug court was developed by a group of judicial professionals in Miami-Dade County, Florida, who grew tired of seeing the same faces appear in their court. This group observed that a large percentage of repeat offenders were landing back in the courtroom – and inevitably behind bars – because of drugs. Their criminal activity was fueled by the urgency to feed their drug addiction. Time spent in jail served as a temporary solution to keeping these offenders away from criminal activity and drug usage. Unfortunately, for both the offenders and the Miami-Dade County taxpayers, once the offenders were back on the streets, they would return to their old habits. 

The group of judicial professionals sought to change the revolving door of drug-related crime and arrests through drug court: a specialty court that would use the legal system to inspire positive transformation. Treatment would be offered in lieu of jail time. Their concept would provide drug treatment through the structure of a court and the authority of a judge. Instead of walking into the courtroom as adversaries, the attorneys on both sides would endeavor to work with the judge toward a common goal: the individual’s successful sobriety. The first drug court was launched in 1989. Ten years after the first drug court was founded, 439 more drug courts were opened, and by June 30, 2012, 2,734 drug courts operated throughout the country. See National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 

In the spring of 1995, Scott Reed, Craig Bunker, and I were asked to attend a drug court conference in Las Vegas. It was there that we were introduced to the concept of the drug court system. Once we understood how effectively it reduced the level of recidivism and improved the lives of those facing addiction, we knew something had to be done in Utah. My colleagues and I returned from the conference inspired to initiate a change in our state’s system. 

Though we faced a great deal of initial skepticism and reluctance, we were granted permission to launch a pilot project. We were pleasantly surprised – and certainly relieved – when Judge Dennis Fuchs came out of the blue and offered to be the judge. 

“I grew up in the ’60s, a time when the drug culture was pretty prevalent. I saw the damage it did to other people. I decided to implement [drug court] to find an alternative to locking up individuals who used drugs and to look for a long-range treatment for those who were involved in drugs,” recalls Judge Fuchs.

He reflects on growing up during a time when he would encounter men who would go off to fight in Vietnam and return with a severe drug addiction. Additionally, Judge Fuchs watched the deterioration of a family member who suffered from a severe addiction to alcohol and cocaine. His experiences led to a perception that disagreed with what had been the norm for dealing with drug-related crimes – and ultimately made him the perfect person to serve as judge in the pilot project.

“Even back then I thought that drugs and alcoholism were more of a disease than they were a crime. I thought that treating those individuals as criminals was the wrong approach,” says Fuchs.

Within a year, Salt Lake opened its first drug court. Two years after the pilot project, more drug courts had been established in Utah. In 1998, the University of Utah’s School of Social Work revealed that recidivism rates for local drug court graduates one year after graduation remained at a steady 7%. In contrast, the United States Department of Justice estimates that approximately 45% of offenders convicted of similar charges but who have not participated in drug court, will relapse and commit another crime. See Three to five years after their first year out from drug court, 75%–85% of drug court graduates are not rearrested.

Today, twenty years later, Utah is home to more than 2,000 drug court graduates. That means more than 2,000 Utah citizens were given the choice to either face serious criminal charges or face their addiction head on and win. These graduates are our sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers. They are our neighbors, friends, and colleagues. They made unlawful choices not, because they were inherently criminals but because they saw no other way to live their life in happiness. Drug court presented them with an alternative, and it continues to help people every single day.

How It Works

“It’s court-ordered and sponsored treatment. The court is the one praising them for doing the correct thing, and the court is the one punishing them if they don’t do the correct thing.”

– Judge Dennis Fuchs