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Recovery support specialist Jessica Neff, right, and Holly Hinojosa go over procedures on the opening day of the Davis County Jail's new receiving center on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. The center will handle low-level substance abuse and mental health arrestees, keeping nonviolent offenders from being incarcerated.

FARMINGTON — An experimental program in Davis County to route some arrestees immediately into mental health or substance abuse treatment rather than jail is being hailed as an example for similar efforts statewide.

People experiencing a behavioral health crisis such as stealing to support a drug habit traditionally go to jail and gain a criminal record.

“In order to get people help we were putting them down a deeper, darker hole,” Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross said at a recent legislative hearing in Salt Lake City.

But early reports indicate the new Behavioral Health Receiving Center at the Davis County Jail is succeeding in providing up-front intervention for people with minor offenses or threats of suicide.

“The clients that I’ve heard about very much appreciate having that option in lieu of being incarcerated in jail,” Davis County Sheriff Kelly Sparks said in an interview Tuesday.

The Receiving Center, operated by Davis Behavioral Health, opened Dec. 13.

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The Davis County Jail opened a receiving center on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, handling low-level substance abuse and mental health arrestees. The center is first of its kind in the state and will help keep nonviolent offenders from being incarcerated.

In the pilot program, police from Layton and Bountiful take suspects to the center, offering them treatment instead of a cell. If the person later drops out of treatment, the criminal charges initially contemplated are filed.

“We have the carrot and stick, but we also know that’s not the strongest motivator,” Ross said. “With this opportunity, we catch them when there’s a possibility of change.”

State Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, wondered how long police would keep those pending cases on file.

Ross said the behavioral health workers “have a really good feel within 60 to 90 days” whether a client will succeed.

“And we remove them from the street, which is in the best interest of public safety anyway,” Ross said.

These offenders, many of them at risk of dangerous drug withdrawal or suicidal ideation, will be safer in treatment outside of jail and have a better chance of turning their lives around, Sparks said.

Clients can be observed at the center for up to 72 hours.

“It also helps keep the jail population low so we have room to house those folks who pose a public safety threat,” the sheriff said.

State Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is sponsoring House Bill 32 in the 2020 legislative session to fund three more receiving center operations along the Wasatch Front.

Eliason gave an example of someone having thoughts of suicide. For a family trying to help the person, the only option today is a costly, time-consuming trip to a hospital emergency room.

That can take 18 hours to three days to begin receiving treatment, but at receiving centers, rapid care and treatment scheduling are available.

“We divert people away from ERs and jails and provide immediate specialized treatment,” Eliason said during a presentation to a legislative committee in November.

It also reduces expenses for the client and the hospitals, Eliason said, adding that the costs incurred by most people entering a receiving center are eligible to be covered by Medicaid.

HB 32 would provide an estimated $6 million for receiving centers and a range of other crisis services, such as expanded mobile crisis response teams of behavioral health personnel.

Eliason said a state behavioral health crisis line takes 10,000 calls a month, and therapists are able to satisfactorily help most people during those calls. About 10 percent of the callers can’t be stabilized on the phone, so mobile crisis teams are dispatched.

The advocacy organization Recovery International has cited Utah’s “glaring gap” in providing “adequate sub-acute services for mental health,” said Doug Thomas, director of the state Substance Abuse and Mental Health Division.

And Eliason said Utah is ranked 51st for adult mental health by the Mental Health America group.

“We need to be closing the gaps in our crisis intervention system,” he said.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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