In drug court, it's carrot or stick - to rave reviews

November 13, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

A middle-aged man steps up in the District Court in Northwest Baltimore and ignites a vast smile on the judge's face. She is glad to see him.

"Good afternoon," says the judge, examining his file. "I see you are doing great. We owe you our applause."

Everyone in the court starts clapping -- clerks, lawyers, other waiting defendants -- in celebration of Joseph Paige, who is then asked by the judge to say a few words.

"I was a heroin addict for over 27 years," he tells the 30 or so people on the benches. "I was a teacher in Baltimore City for 21 years. Most of the time I was high. Today I consider myself 271 days old. That's how long I've been clean."

There is more applause as Mr. Paige, a 47-year-old physical education instructor, departs, looking forward to Day 272 of his new life.

Soon after, another addict stands before the court. His file indicates he is using drugs. It elicits from the judge not a smile, but the sting of her disappointment.

"I relapsed out of depression," William Stokley says. "My father's in the hospital. Lots of people in my family are old and getting sick. I been talking to my pastor. I'd like to ask you to be lenient."

"The struggle here, the real test," the judge responds, "is when things get tough, how you deal with the bad days."

Incarceration looms. The public defender, Stephen Chaikin, argues that jail won't help his client. The judge disagrees.

"You owe me some days," she tells Mr. Stokley with finality. He gets two days in jail.

Welcome to "drug court," Judge Jamey H. Weitzman presiding. This is Baltimore's response to these disturbing numbers:

* Eighty percent of the inmates of Maryland's prisons are there for drug-elated crimes.

* Nearly 85 percent of all crime in Baltimore is drug-related.

* Sixty-five percent of all those arrested in Baltimore have drugs in their blood, and 45 percent have more than one drug.

"Does that scare me?" Assistant State's Attorney Alan C. Woods III asks. "Yes," he answers. "It does."

The Baltimore drug court has been operating at the District Court level (where misdemeanors such as shoplifting, petty theft and prostitution are dealt with) since March.

It is an attempt to reduce the high recidivism among those charged with drug-related crimes by putting them into treatment rather than jail.

No violent offenders are admitted to drug court. No drug dealers, sex offenders or child molesters are eligible, or anyone convicted of a firearms offense in the past 15 years. Until recently, no felons were considered for one of the 600 treatment slots the drug court contracts for at three treatment programs.

That changed last month, when a drug court began operating at the Circuit Court level, with Judge Joseph McCurdy presiding. But even there, among the felons, the same eligibility criteria apply.

Has drug court worked?

"So far I'm excited about it," said Mr. Woods. "The numbers are not yet large enough to be certain. Treatment programs should go a year or 18 months, and we've only been up since March."

Federal funding

Even so, those involved with drug court are hard put to conceal their enthusiasm for this program, funded by a $5 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Justice Department. Judge Weitzman, a former prosecutor of narcotics offenders, is "thrilled" by the program.

So is David Skeen, co-chairman of the Baltimore Coalition Against Substance Abuse, who said that of the 120 addicts put on the drug court's rolls since March "only eight or 10 have dropped out or been asked to leave."

Of the others, he said, "some are doing well, some are trying and failing and trying again."

Because Judge Weitzman has been sitting in drug court since March, she has been able to follow each case and learn a lot about the pathology of addicts. That attentiveness and constant judicial review is the key to making drug court work.

Addicts appear every few weeks before the judge for a progress assessment. Every Wednesday afternoon, Courtroom 2, in the 5800 block of Wabash Ave., resounds with the frequent and uncharacteristic sound of applause, and occasionally the even more impressive silences of disappointment.

Once accepted by the drug court, addicts are sent into treatment without delay. Drug rehabilitation counselors immediately involve themselves in the addicts' lives.

Counseling goes on every day, or less frequently, depending on the individual addict's needs. Addicts are given frequent urine tests and must attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Most of the treatment is on an outpatient basis.

The principle of the carrot and stick prevails in drug court. You do well, you get the carrot (such symbols as plastic pens and drinking cups, plus lots of moral support; more important, you get to keep your freedom). You do badly, you get the stick: more rigorous testing, more counseling, jail.

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