Drug courts give abusers treatment, bypassing jail Baltimore to try out 1,000 offenders

May 08, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

From Tampa, Fla., to Oakland, Calif., a new movement in narcotics prosecutions that offers drug abusers treatment instead of jail is challenging the lock-'em-up mentality of the 1980s war on drugs.

The shift in attitude has spawned special drug courts across the country in which judges check the results of a defendant's most recent urine test by computer, treatment often involves acupuncture, and prosecutors accept an occasional relapse by defendants.

Here in Maryland, state and local officials plan to start an experimental drug court in Baltimore that will provide treatment for 1,000 nonviolent offenders, possibly by January.

What began four years ago in Miami as an experiment for drug-abusing first offenders is being touted by prosecutors and treatment specialists alike as the best way to break the cycle of drug abuse recidivism that has escalated crime in metropolitan areas and overburdened jails and prisons.

The Baltimore program -- planned over the past six months in biweekly sessions of state and local health and criminal justice officials and sponsored by the city bar association -- relies on receiving $5 million in federal funds. But architects of the proposed drug court say they have enough money in hand to start a small program.

Given the crush of narcotics cases -- at least 50 percent of felony defendants in the Baltimore Circuit Court are drug offenders, and 80 percent of state prison inmates have a history of substance abuse -- the officials say the program could save $2.1 million in reduced jail, trial and probation costs in one year alone.

"It doesn't seem to matter what we do; traditional approaches to criminal prosecution and law enforcement simply have not been able to keep up with the increase [in crime]," said Alan C. Woods, a prosecutor in the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, among the key agencies planning the city's new drug court.

"If we ran our drug policy in a way to minimize the damage of drug abuse and drug abuse control instead of as a cultural holy war, we would get better results," added Mark A. R. Kleiman, public policy professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

With Janet Reno, a reform-minded, though tough, prosecutor heading the Justice Department, some criminal justice officials and drug policy experts are optimistic that the Clinton administration will provide financial support for innovative crime-solving programs.

There is reason for that optimism, considering that Ms. Reno -- along with Hugh Rodham, a Miami public defender and Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother -- helped pioneer the nation's first drug court as the Dade County, Fla., state's attorney.

In 1989, Dade County law enforcement officials, with the support of a community business coalition, instituted a program to postpone a drug abuser's criminal case, divert him into outpatient treatment, monitor him through urinalysis, counseling and court supervision and even allow him "to mess up" a few times.

Dade officials say the most comprehensive review of participants in its drug court was recently completed by John S. Goldkamp, a criminal justice professor at Temple University. Mr. Goldkamp studied offenders who entered the program during a two-month period in 1991 and tracked them for 18 months.

He found that defendants in Miami's drug court "were rearrested less frequently [than other felony defendants] over a period of time," and when they were rearrested, they "took much longer to do it."

"It was a real leap of faith and a real courageous experiment," said Mr. Goldkamp, who will present his report to Dade County next month. "It's becoming clear it was a public safety success. In the meantime, they have played out for the first time some of the hard issues when you try to force drug treatment and criminal justice concerns in the same place."

Cities that include Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Tampa, Fla.; Oakland, Calif.; and Brooklyn, N.Y., have embraced the drug court concept for nonviolent offenders -- even some with criminal pasts -- who are recommended for treatment and who sign a contract to enter the program.

Many programs include acupuncture as part of the treatment; others add stints of "shock incarceration" for offenders who slip up; some offer job training at the local community college. While the programs differ in degree, the officials running them seem to agree that the lock-'em-up mentality of the 1980s has only exacerbated the crime problem.

Judge Harl H. Haas, who presides over the 18-month-old drug court in Oregon's Multnomah County, said he expected Ms. Reno and the newly appointed federal drug policy chief, Lee P. Brown, to "provide a great deal of leadership" that "stops all the emphasis on supply and looks on the demand side."

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