Justice Eludes Deaf Addict

Sykesville Man Caught In Cycle Of Arrests, Releases

February 05, 1992|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

SYKESVILLE — James Alton Markel Sr. has been charged with stealing two cars, forging checks, shoplifting and possession of drugs.

He faces at leastsix more appearances in the coming months before judges in Carroll, Howard and Baltimore counties.

Markel has been addicted to cocaine for more than a year.

But that's not all that's working against the 34-year-old father of two in his dealings with the legal system -- he's been deaf since birth.

And that, say his parents and others in and out of the state's legal system, has proven to be a barrier to fair treatment in the courts and successful treatment for his addiction.

"The world has had to put up with his habit of $300 a day, every day," said Peggy Johnson, minister at the Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore and a family friend. "He and the rest of us have had to live with all of this."

Markel, who separated from his wife of eight years last April, has been charged with possession of cocaine three times since then. He was charged with stealing cars in Howard and Baltimore counties and shoplifting $15.99 worth of merchandise at Security Square Mall in Baltimore County.

But until the one-time carpenter was convicted last week on two counts of forging checks in Howard County, he had never been kept in custody.

"They'd keep arresting him, butthen they'd just release him," his mother, Lois Markel, who is also deaf, said in sign language through Johnson. "At least now, he's in asafe place, away from the drugs."

Since last Thursday, when a Howard County judge sentenced Markel to three years in prison, that safeplace has been the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore.

For the last eight months, however, Johnson, Markel's parents and counselors have tried to get him into a treatment program for his cocaine addiction.

"Every time they'd arrest him, they would let him go on his ownrecognizance, even after he had all of these charges," Johnson said."It's like they're either not able or not willing to help him because he is deaf."

Under state and federal laws, courts must provide sign-language interpreters for deaf defendants. Carroll District Courtofficials have arranged for an interpreter for Markel's initial appearance tomorrow on cocaine possession charges pending since August.

But while the courts are obligated to provide interpreters, findingthem is another story.

"In the legal system, there are important consequences to every word," said Carol Ford, with Centralized Interpretation Referral Services in Baltimore. "You can only send highly qualified interpreters into court because of that."

According to theNational Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, the Silver Springs-based organization that licenses sign-language interpreters, only three people in Maryland have special certification in legal affairs.

Overall, only 123 Marylanders are certified by the registry to be used in a courtroom setting.

"You can't just plunk somebody who is certified into court," said Janet Bailey, the organization's president."Certification is absolutely important, but every word in court matters. You have to have people prepared for that."

As the courts struggle to find interpreters, the state's addictions treatment system has even more difficulty.

For Markel, whose court-imposed 28-day treatment program at the Baltimore Recovery Center was unsuccessful, all avenues in Maryland are closed, Johnson said. The state will no longer pay for more inpatient treatment for Markel, only outpatient treatment at centers that aren't oriented for the deaf.

Maryland is not alone in its lack of deaf-oriented chemical addiction programs.

"People have a certain naivete when it comes to deaf addicts," said Debra Guthmann, the program director at the Minnesota Chemical Dependency Program for the Hearing Impaired in Minneapolis. "People seem to think that the deaf are not using drugs to the extent that they are. Many of the people we see here have multiplerrests, and they are simply let go because they're deaf."

The program is one of less than ahandful of similar facilities that provide addiction rehabilitation strictly for deaf people, and the one Markel's parents hope the courts allow him to attend.

"We want to get him sent to the program in Minnesota," Lois Markel said. "It's the drugs inside his body that are making him not himself. He's a really good person."

If convictedof all charges pending against him between now and May, Markel couldbe sentenced to up to 39 more years in prison and fined more than $52,000.

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