News | Street Savvy: New detox program helps addicts while freeing up jail space for tougher criminals. 

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It’s become a routine call a police officer would just as soon avoid—wrangling a drunk-and-disorderly suspect in a public space. Salt Lake City Police officers have long complained of hours lost on the beat due to rounding up intoxicated people, who typically are more of a nuisance than a serious threat to public safety.n

A new Salt Lake County substance-abuse program may be changing this scene—for police officers and those they routinely lock up. Now, cops need only make a phone call for help. Instead of being booked into county jail and bounced back to the streets in a matter of days, if not hours, these “drunk and disorderlies” get a free assessment of their addictions, resources for help and a place to crash while they sober up.

The Jail Diversion Program—sponsored by Volunteers of America, Salt Lake County Substance Abuse Services and the Salt Lake City Police Department—is nearly halfway through its funded pilot period, but already police officers say they are feeling the results.

“This is very beneficial for us,” says Salt Lake City Police Det. Andy Jackson. “It keeps cops down on the streets and out in the communities instead of tied up at [the] jail.” Jackson, like many police officers, has gone through the chore of having to corral individuals—most of them homeless—for public intoxication. Officers can spend a chunk of their day booking these small-time offenders into the Salt Lake County Metro Jail.

On average, booking a suspect who is under the influence takes about 90 minutes, Jackson says, but he recalls one case that took three hours.

“Now, we’re only tied up maybe 15 minutes on a call,” Jackson says, explaining that officers call the detox center, which sends a van to the location. The suspect is screened and then transported to the center, housed at the Volunteers of America headquarters on 300 West near 1000 South.

Local governments are paying attention to the program, especially in light of increasing pressure on the overcrowded metro jail. The Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office recently was forced to release 14 inmates over one weekend to ease the crowding.

“We’ve been one of the leading agencies in the state to start looking at the criminal-justice system differently,” says Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon. “[We] realize that, for almost $80 a day, we can’t just use our jails to warehouse people with mental-health and substance-abuse issues.” Saving jail bed space will be a relief to the county budget and for police officers constrained by staff and time limitations.

The time saved by law enforcement has added up already. The detox center has taken in 74 people since the jail-diversion pilot began in February. Police estimate the program has saved them 72 hours in booking and paperwork time. “And we’re kind of new, so it’s taken a while for officers to know that we’re here,” says Kelly Quernemoen, a director of the detox center.

The detox facility is modest in size, but can house up to 60 temporary tenants as they struggle with flushing drugs and alcohol from their systems. A reception area on the first floor is adjoined to a large gym-style floor, where clients sleep on mats. A small kitchen separates the reception area from the lounge, where a few men peer over a large jigsaw puzzle set up on a table. On the second floor, counselors and staff are busy making calls to help arrange low-income housing, setting up appointments with the Fourth Street Clinic for the homeless and doing other assessments of clients.

The average stay is two weeks, but in that time, clients receive three hot meals a day, two snacks and plenty of help. A health assessment aids in determining how severe their addiction is and helps staff direct them to the treatment that might serve them best. It’s the kind of attention the men and women would never get during a night in the drunk tank.

While the center isn’t equipped to provide medical treatment, staff members do constantly monitor clients’ vital signs during their first days in detoxification. “A lot of them haven’t felt their bodies in a long time,” says spokesperson Michelle Templin. “That’s why we have such a great staff here to say, ‘This person needs to go to the hospital,’ or, ‘This person needs mental help.’”

The center staff sets aside five beds every night for people referred by the police. Clients are not forced to stay. They may come and go through detox several times before deciding they want to get serious about further treatment options. While the detox center is a valuable stepping stone for recovering addicts, the facility itself is only transitional.

“It’s an unfortunate necessity of the program that, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go,” Templin says. The center recognizes the biggest challenge still is the one facing all policymakers in helping addicts—the wait list for more comprehensive treatment.

“It’s hard when we tell them, ‘You’re critical; you need residential treatment,’” says program manager Char McCuaig, “[so] go stay sober on your own, on the streets for 6 to 12 weeks and then you can go to treatment.”

VOA’s adult detox center and other community programs run off donations. For more information on how to help, go to


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More by Eric S. Peterson

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