First Group Graduates From Operation Rio Grande Drug Court

Oct 18, 2018, 12:09 AM | Updated: 12:32 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – More than a year after the beginning of Operation Rio Grande, 15 people have graduated from the program’s first drug court.

The 15 people were arrested as part of the program aimed at preventing homelessness in the Rio Grande district of Salt Lake City.

“This is a game-changer to me. This is life-changing.”

Cedric Willis said he had lost his job and was on the streets when he was arrested in 2017.

“I was out there and just lost,” Willis said.

Willis qualified for the drug court program established for Operation Rio Grande. The program allows people to enter a guilty plea, which is then held in abeyance while the person completes the drug court program. Upon completion of the program, the charges are dismissed. After 52 weeks of treatment, Willis and 14 others graduated from the program Wednesday evening.

“It means that I have a stable foundation. It means that I’m able to be productive and return back to society as a registered voter and do positive things in the community,” he said.

Willis has a job now, and so does his fellow graduate Destiny Garcia. She works in the Salt Lake County mayor’s office.

“This is a game-changer to me. This is life-changing,” Garcia said.

Garcia said she was arrested on an outstanding warrant. If it had not been for the Operation Rio Grande drug court program, she said she likely would not have gotten treatment.

At the ceremony, each graduate stood at the podium with a friend or family member who talked about how things had changed for them. Garcia brought her son, Isaiah, to the front of the crowded auditorium. She recalled the moment she called her family to tell them she was entering treatment.

“I called my family and my son said, ‘Mom, I’m so proud of you and I love you.’ That’s all I had to hear for me to continue my journey,” she said.

Isaiah said the difference in his mother since she went into treatment has been stark.

“Most importantly, she’s happy. I’ve seen a huge change from her, and I owe that to all you guys here who did this operation,” he said.

While the Wednesday evening ceremony was an important milestone for those 15 people and their families, some say Operation Rio Grande’s organizers have not focused enough on treatment. The Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union released a paper titled “Calculating the Real Cost of Operation Rio Grande.” The organization argues the vast majority of people arrested through the operation have not been put on a better path.

“With ORG (Operation Rio Grande) designed as a hammer, we predicted 14 months ago that everyone it touched would be treated like a nail,” the paper read.

The ACLU said the efforts have had too much of a focus on law-enforcement as opposed to treatment options.

“Since August 2017, more than 5,024 people have been arrested due to Operation Rio Grande, with 79 percent of them picked up for misdemeanors or active warrants. During the same period, local social service agencies added 243 new treatment beds, while 120 individuals pled into a new drug court. The 13-to-1 imbalance is a direct result of the law-enforcement dominance of ORG from its inception,” the paper read.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said there is still work to be done on Operation Rio Grande, but that they were making progress.

“I understand the report. At the same time, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’re holding accountable those people who are committing crime on our streets and yet we’re showing them a door to a different way of life,” McAdams said.

Utah Speaker of the House Greg Hughes was frustrated by the paper.

“I wouldn’t even call it a ‘report,’” Hughes said. “It’s misleading. It is not accurate. It would suggest that I or policymakers are a ‘hammer,’ and the people that you’ll see at this drug court graduation tonight, they belittle them as ‘nails,’”

Hughes took issue with numbers in the ACLU paper, saying they do not accurately portray how much effort is being put into treatment.

“When they count beds, they lead someone to believe that’s a person. Many people can be in those beds,” he said.

The Utah chapter of the ACLU will hold a panel discussion on the topic Thursday evening at 6:30 at the Centro Civico Mexicano. The panel will include Catholic Community Services Director of Homeless Services Matt Melville, public defender Kate Conyers, Odyssey House CEO Adam Cohen, and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Local News

Randy Martin working on a reading station in West Valley City. (KSL-TV's Mike Anderson)...
Mike Anderson

Utah air quality is continuing to get worse, says USU professor

A Utah State University professor says that Utahns are breathing some of the worst air we've seen in over a decade.
22 hours ago
The area where first responders rescued the two people (Weber Fire District)...
Michael Houck

Two rescued from Pineview Reservoir after falling through ice

Officials are warning residents of thin ice after two people needed rescuing from the Pineview Reservoir Saturday morning. 
22 hours ago
(KSL TV)...
Michael Houck

Police: Man threatening neighbors with knife, leads officers in multi-agency chase

A man is in police custody after "waving" a knife around bystanders and fleeing from police Friday evening.
22 hours ago
Presenters at the Health Relationship Youth Summit asking for final questions. (KSL-TV's Mark Less)...
Alex Cabrero

Utah teens learn more about healthy relationships at youth summit

Teenagers gathered at a Healthy Relationship Youth Summit to learn more about the signs of unhealthy relationships and be able to identify them.
22 hours ago
snow covered bowl in Utah mountains...
Michael Houck

Woman hit by snowmobile while tubing near Peter Sinks, flown to U of U hospital

First responders treated a woman hit by a snowmobile while tubing near the Peter Sinks area Saturday afternoon.
22 hours ago
For 29 years, Mike Skogerboe has been to nearly every girls and boys basketball game, and nearly ev...
Mike Anderson

Fremont High School helps support their superfan

Students and teachers at Fremont High School teamed up to help out their superfan who rarely misses a game.
22 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

vintage photo of lighting showroom featuring chandeliers, lamps, wall lights and mirrors...
Lighting Design

History of Lighting Design | Over 25 Years of Providing Utah With the Latest Trends and Styles

Read about the history of Lighting Design, a family-owned and operated business that paved the way for the lighting industry in Utah.
Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...
Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.
notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 Reasons You May Want to Consider Apartment Life Over Owning a Home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
First Group Graduates From Operation Rio Grande Drug Court