Howard County is banking on a new program aimed at treating first-time offenders in drug- and alcohol-related crimes to keep them from committing a second offense.
The program, which was unveiled yesterday and begins later this month, also could help reduce the heavy backlog of cases in the county courts, officials said.
The First Offender's Diversion Program will divert people charged with misdemeanor drug and alcohol violations into health and treatment programs.
Program officials say it is an enticing alternative to going to court and facing a judge who may hand down a guilty verdict and a sentence that could include education and treatment anyway. They're calling it an innovative way to catch first-time offenders who may wind up in jail again on similar charges.
"Diversion is the key ingredient in keeping cases off dockets," said John Shatto, Circuit Court administrator.
Program officials hope about 50 first-time offenders will go through the program the first year. "We're hopeful it will cut down on repeat offenders -- the recidivism cases," said Michael Weal, Assistant State's Attorney for District Court. "We know for a fact that it will cut down on caseload in courts."
An average of 11,000 cases -- about 3,800 of them drug- and alcohol-related -- go through District Court each year. Many of these cases get pushed onto dockets at Circuit Court, delaying trial of more serious crimes such as murder and armed robbery.
Although Joyce Brown, the county's substance-abuse coordinator, couldn't verify the number of drug- and alcohol-related cases in the county, she said one-fourth of them involve misdemeanor charges such as marijuana or alcohol possession. Only those facing misdemeanor charges will be eligible for the program.
If they choose to enroll, they will pay for the cost of their treatment, which will be determined by the county health department. The court case will be put on a "stet docket" -- or inactive status -- for a year. If they successfully complete the program, the charges will be dismissed and expunged from the record. Should they fail, they will face the charges.
The program is the result of a collaborative effort among the county's substance-abuse office, courts, State's Attorney's office, Mothers Against Drinking and Driving (MADD), and police and health departments.
"This substance abuse is one of the issues we face, and we need everybody's help," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "Police can't do it alone. Courts can't do it alone."
Program officials hope to expand the program next year to include more participants, but haven't made projections as to how many. They say they'll track the program's results in the next four to five months.
County officials say no tax money will be used. A $37,000 grant from the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission and a $12,000 grant from the county's Drug Asset Forfeiture Fund will pay for for the program, which is scheduled to start this month.
The money will pay the salary of two workers, one a part-time caseworker who will leaf through police charging documents each day to identify potential candidates.
Although the program targets first-time offenders, many who go through the court system now are between age 18 and 25, said Weal, chief of the civil division.
"We get a lot of people -- young people -- who need education, who need intervention, who need treatment," said Frank McGloin, director of the health department's Addiction Services Center.
"The key is getting people at an early stage," he said. "It's common sense, but it's hard to do."