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The second time Mindy Vincent lost custody of her son she knew it was time to get serious in dealing with her methamphetamine addiction.

Lucky for her, Salt Lake County has a drug court that emphasizes substance-abuse treatment and intense supervision over the stagnancy of jail time.

Now, eight years after graduating from drug court, Vincent has bachelor's and master's degrees and is working as a licensed clinical social worker for First Step House, a nonprofit involved with the county's Pay For Success program to deal with addicts who spend too much time in the criminal-justice system.

She's also headed back to the University of Utah for a second master's degree, this one in public administration.

Vincent "needed the long-term structure and stability the drug court offered in addition to treatment," she said Wednesday, when the 20th anniversary of the court was celebrated in a luncheon honoring three Salt Lake City lawyers who kick-started the effort and others who helped make it what it is today.

"Drug court has been shown to be a better approach than the endless revolving door of people with substance-abuse problems in and out of jail," said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. "It results in fewer victims of crime, better results for the offender to turn his or her life around, and more efficient use of scarce tax dollars."

As evidence, he said drug court saves $500,000 a month since a person in the program costs the county $22 a day compared to an expense of $95 a day for someone in jail.

The court came about after attorneys Scott Reed, Greg Skordas and Craig Bunker attended a conference in Las Vegas where they learned of a "problem-solving court" that focused on high-risk drug offenders likely to relapse.

Within a year, McAdams said, 3rd District Judge Dennis Fuchs had received approval from Utah's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to establish a court in Salt Lake City. Now there are 20 juvenile and adult drug courts statewide, serving about 700 people annually.

Judge Randall Skanchy now presides over the court every Tuesday, which he called the best day of the week because it allows him to "view lives being changed for the better," people who started without homes or support who often "come back into a family with people who love and support them and help them contribute to society."

It also can be a tough job, he admitted, "when things don't go according to plan" and families are left worrying about loved ones going through a relapse.

But one strength of Salt Lake's drug court program, Skanchy added, is that the recidivism rate is just 25 percent for people who complete the 18- to 24-month program. By comparison, 75 percent of people with substance-abuse problems who are released from jail return there.

"You simply can't punish your way out of addiction," said Sheriff Jim Winder, noting that many druggies are coming from "environments where jail is better."

The drug court, he added, removes these people "from threats and temptations and moves them into an environment where they can build new skills," he added. "That's a model for success with any human being."

Drug court honorees

Celebrated for their work in the first 20 years of Salt Lake County's drug court were attorneys Scott Reed and Greg Skordas; Judge Dennis Fuchs; former Salt Lake Legal Defender Association Director John Hill; Candace Nenow, former director of the county Criminal Justice Services division; and the late Bud Ellett of the county district attorney's office.