'Drug court' offers treatment and job advice, not jail

March 30, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's "drug court" is now in session, steering junkies driven to petty crime away from jail and toward counselors who will treat their habits, teach them to read and even help them find a job.

The Drug Treatment Court, scheduled to be unveiled at a news conference today after a monthlong phase-in with a small docket of defendants, is a 1990s-style criminal justice program touted by everyone from President Clinton to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Or for that matter, anyone who considers locking up drug-abusing, nonviolent crooks as no longer the answer to addiction-driven crime.

First tried in Miami and now a key component of a national anti-crime bill, drug courts seek to stem the endless cycle of drugs-crime-prison by providing an advantage in overcoming addiction and becoming a productive citizen. Drug courts also seek to reduce court caseloads and prison populations. The Baltimore program, paid for with $2.3 million in federal grants, has a capacity for 600 offenders.

Children dying in the cross-fire of warring drug dealers may grab headlines in Baltimore, but the addicts and their offenses are considered a root of the crime problem.

"There would be no turf to fight over if there were no drug addicts. You've got to fight it from both ends," said Joseph H.H. Kaplan, administrative judge of Baltimore Circuit Court and a member of the committee that worked out the details of the drug court program. Mr. Schmoke said the program would "go a long way in helping the criminal justice system to distinguish the addicts from the dealers."

"It will provide treatment for the addicts and help police focus their limited resources on the major dealers in this community," the mayor said through his spokesman.

No one is claiming that everyone who passes through court will stay clean. Architects of the Baltimore plan, citing a 40 percent failure rate in Miami, have drafted "sanctions," including "shock incarceration," for those who stray.

Indeed, of the 11 defendants admitted in the test phase, one already has been named in an arrest warrant for allegedly absconding from the program and another warrant was to be sought for a second noncompliant participant.

A Baltimore drug court was proposed in 1992 by a panel of the Bar Association of Baltimore City. The need to do something was reflected in the statistics: 50 percent of felony defendants in Baltimore were drug offenders and 80 percent of the state's prison inmates had a history of substance abuse.

In October, the bar association brought together the people needed to make a drug court work -- judges in the Baltimore Circuit and District courts, prosecutors and public defenders, the heads of the state parole and probation department and the Baltimore City Detention Center, representatives of the governor and the mayor and officials from the city health department and a substance abuse agency. The committee studied the Miami drug court and others during meetings that were, according to some participants, at times tumultuous.

The program will be open only to adults from Baltimore who have no record of violent crime and no convictions for drug distribution or possession with intent to distribute drugs within the past five years. Anyone currently charged with a violent crime or in possession of a gun when arrested will not be eligible.

Members of the committee dismissed the suggestion that those requirements are so stringent, and the program so demanding, that those who may be eligible may decide to go to court in hopes of beating their rap or getting a light sentence.

"If he's an addict and he desires to solve his problem, the criminal justice route is not going to solve his problem," Judge Kaplan said. "If he goes this route, he makes a decent life for himself."

Alan C. Woods III, a researcher and statistician in the Baltimore state's attorney's office and a committee member, said, "There are a number of addicts that don't want to be addicted. There are addicts who want treatment at crisis time, and crisis time is often an arrest."

Currently in the program are four men and seven women, ranging in age from 18 to 37, charged with theft, possession of drugs or vandalism, said Leonard A. Sipes, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Thomas H. Williams, an administrator for the department and the project director for drug court, explained how the program works.

Those arrested are screened by officials at the Baltimore City Detention Center or by officials in the state's pretrial release services program. After making this cut, they are reviewed by prosecutors and public defenders.

Suspects still considered then undergo testing to determine the relationship between their addiction and their crime. Mr. Williams said the tests answer the question: "If you took away his drug addiction, would he still be a criminal?" If the answer is yes, he is no longer a candidate.

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