Cutbacks in drug-testing concern Maryland judges

February 17, 1993|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

Cutbacks in urinalysis testing for drug offenders will jeopardize the effectiveness of probation and probably mean increased drug abuse by those sentenced to it, the chief judge for Anne Arundel County Circuit Court said yesterday.

Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. said a new state Division of Parole and Probation policy means drug offenders placed on probation could use drugs for up to eight months before the sentencing judge is notified and an arrest warrant is issued.

Probation officers have been told to report positive urinalysis tests immediately, if the judge requests. But Judge Thieme said he wants such reporting made a requirement, not a recommendation.

"If I sentence someone to probation with urinalysis, and he comes back with a positive [urinalysis], I want to be notified immediately," Judge Thieme said.

State guidelines, changed about a month ago, call for the sentencing judge to be alerted of a probation violation only after the offender fails a urinalysis test for the fourth time. It also calls for overall cutbacks in the number of tests because of budget constraints.

"Budget limitations restrict our ability to test all of our population who need it, thereby requiring that we test those offenders who are the highest risk," a state policy manual states.

The manual, obtained and released by Judge Thieme, said the spending plan will be updated every six months.

The tests costs $11 each.

The court can order defendants to pay for urinalysis, but the state is frequently hit for the fee if the defendant is indigent.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Parole and Probation's policy is that if the judge asks to be notified on the first positive urinalysis, the judge will be notified. Mr. Sipes said 00 the state signed a contract last year to spend $200,000 for urinalysis tests through June 30, 1993.

Because of budget limitations, the contract means roughly 93 defendants per month in Anne Arundel County may be provided urinalysis. Before the contract, the number was about 120, he said.

"The problem is that the system is in the process of being overwhelmed by the numbers," he said. Since 1987, parole and probation caseloads have increased 59 percent, to roughly 130,000.

Judge Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, said yesterday many Maryland judges share Judge Thieme's concerns, but there is not much the judiciary, or the governor, can do.

"It's a dollars-and-cents problem, like a lot of problems facing governments these days," he said.

Judges say drug offenses make up a large portion of the criminal caseloads in most circuit courts -- and that urinalysis is often a key in deciding whether to give drug offenders probation or prison.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz said circuit judges there met about two months ago because of concerns over cutbacks in urinalysis. The judges dispatched a letter to former Parole and Probation Director Henry L. Templeton, who assured them they would be notified of a positive urinalysis after the first instance, Judge Levitz said.

"We absolutely want to be notified on that first positive," he said.

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