From: Seymour B. Stern
Maryland State Bar Association
The legal profession joins society in general in its dismay and outrage over the dramatic increase in crime, overloaded court dockets and drunk driving incidents. Attorneys see it every day and are all too aware of the impact it has on innocent victims.
The only long-term solution to substance abuse is education. The recommended short-term solution in many alcohol- and drug-related civil matters is treatment. Sometimes, jail must be the answer, but most often, treatment helps the individual and is a solution to correct the individual's abuse problem.
Often, driving-while-intoxicated cases present difficult dilemmas for Maryland judges. Dothey try to educate the abuser, provide treatment, or simply punish by placing them in jail? Maryland judges have been afforded by the legislature the use of a "tool" referred to as Probation Before Judgment (PBJ). The tool of a PBJ allows an offender to be offered treatmentand education.
In an article in The Howard County Sun on Oct. 14,entitled "Drunken Drivers: Off the Hook, Not Off the Road," by Deidre N. McCabe, there was an implication that Probation Before Judgment was a frequently used measure by Howard County judges, showing their leniency.
Facts show, however, that the use of PBJ by judges in Howard County is not greater than the use of PBJ by the majority of judges in Maryland.
Judges are granting PBJs and sending drunk drivers to alcohol and drug abuse treatment centers where they will receivehelp to overcome their disease. Judges are not to be looked upon as lenient, but instead should be seen as rehabilitating through treatment and education.
A guilty plea usually results in a fine and a brief jail sentence. A PBJ, on the other hand, means a strenuous treatment program, designated hours of community service, plus a fine. A PBJ forces the individual to face his or her problems on a continuing basis.
The National Center for State Courts delivered a report in January (1990).
Although The Howard County Sun article failed to mention it, on Page 11 of the report it was noted that Probation BeforeJudgment is the disposition with the lowest recidivism rate.
The report recommended PBJ as "most effective in preventing repeated offenses." It is unfortunate that your reporter failed to use the conclusion or other data from the report in her study, although she was presented with this information by the judges of Howard County.
The legal profession is trying to address the problems of alcohol and drug abuse in all arenas through education, prevention and treatment.
We would encourage the participation of the media in helping us to perform these valuable risks, rather than seek headlines without fully explaining the other side of the issue.
When I spoke about substance abuse, I have made the assumption that if anyone has used alcohol to such an extent that he or she has been convicted of driving while intoxicated, then he or she has certainly abused the use of alcohol.
Your reporter was correct in stating that "judges in Howard County use PBJ in drunken driving cases at least twice as often as judges inthe majority of Maryland counties."
That is merely to say that 13, or a majority of the 24 jurisdictions, give less than half of the PBJs. This analysis fails to recognize where the majority of Maryland's 97 District Court actually sit, and it fails to recognize the totalnumber of dispositions.
My criticism with the reporter's statement is her ranking by counties. Howard County District Court judges actually rank seventh among the total number of District Court judges intheir use of PBJs.
Simply put, a majority of Maryland's 97 District Court judges give PBJs more frequently than do the four District Court judges in Howard County. The comparison by the reporter in her use of counties rather than actually looking at the total number of dispositions does not properly reflect the overall number of judges and dispositions.
I hope this letter helps to clarify my previous letter. I once again extend to our newspaper an opportunity to join with the lawyers of Maryland in properly educating the public on issues of vital concern to us all.
Editor's note: The report to which thewriter refers was conducted by the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va. Reviewing DWI sentences in Maryland, it stated: "The judicious use of PBJ (sentences) along with other appropriate sanctions may not only be appropriate, but may enhance the likelihood that first-time DWI defendants will not return to the criminal justicesystem."
In a detailed review of more than 300 cases in Howard County in 1989 and 1990, The Howard County Sun found that about 60 percent of those convicted of DWI received probation before judgment. In many cases, PBJ was not accompanied by conditions mentioned in the NCSC report -- community service, treatment, counseling and fines amongthem.
This is not what the report states helps to reduce recidivism. It is what has led to questioning whether judges in Howard and other counties have been using the PBJ option judiciously in disposing of cases in which defendants drink and drive.
Whether by one configuration of the statistics Howard ranks seventh among PBJ use within Maryland, or slightly higher by a different statistical analysis, is wholly dependent on how the numbers are played. Neither nominal ranking has an impact on what the figures among Howard County judges showed.
Our article did not state that alcoholics are not in need of treatment or that justice should not be tempered with mercy.
We researched about 800 cases in preparing the article; the rehabilitative measures the writer -- as well as judges, prosecutors and others -- have cited have a chance of working only when applied.