Jail or treatment? Answers to drug crime weighed

March 12, 1995|By Gregory P. Kane | Gregory P. Kane,Sun Staff Writer

Eighty-five percent of the crimes reported in Anne Arundel County last year were drug-related, a fact that has renewed the old debate of whether treating drug addicts is more effective than jailing them for the crimes they commit to support their habits.

"A jailed guy cost $18,000 to $25,000 a year. Treatment is about half that cost," said Alan R. Friedman, the county's public defender.

The statistics paint a grim picture of drug-related crime:

* Eighty-five percent of all crime in Anne Arundel County is drug-related, said Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

* Robbery was up 17.1 percent last year, and most of those crimes were "drug-related rip-offs" caused by the "continuing desire for drugs," according to a county police report.

* Narcotics violations rose 16.3 percent.

* As of Friday, 690 people were in the Anne Arundel County jail, 140 over capacity. Robin Harting, an assistant superintendent, estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of the inmates have drug problems.

Mr. Friedman believes the inmates and society would be better served by giving drug offenders inpatient treatment for at least a year as an alternative to incarceration.

A report issued by Join Together, a national resource center for drug abuse information, claimed that taxpayers save $7.14 for every dollar invested in treatment.

The county state's attorney's office takes a slightly different view.

"We don't agree on who needs treatment and who doesn't," said Michael Bergeson, an assistant state's attorney who heads the narcotics unit.

Fifteen months ago, his office started a program to keep minor first-time drug possession offenders out of jail. The program puts defendants in court-ordered drug treatment programs and places their cases on the inactive docket. If they fail to complete the treatment program, they can be prosecuted for the original offense.

Robert Beck, acting chief of the county Police Department, and Chief Joseph S. Johnson of the Annapolis Police Department both conceded that most of Anne Arundel's crime is drug-related, but their ideas about treatment also differ from Mr. Friedman's.

"I don't know if long-term treatment in and of itself is the answer," Chief Johnson said. "I think a combination of treatment and incarceration is needed. My philosophy is totally different from [Mr. Friedman's]."

Chief Beck favors treatment, but only for those who use drugs or sell drugs to support their habit.

"I know the feeling now is to lock them up and throw away the key, but you can't ignore treatment," he said. "Jailing them is not always cost-effective. It can even be cost prohibitive."

But violent offenders should go to jail, Chief Beck emphasized.

Treatment doesn't necessarily preclude jail, Mr. Friedman conceded.

"In some instances it can be done at the same time," he said.

Some judges may feel more comfortable if the addict is in a secure setting, Mr. Friedman said.

Circuit Court Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. said some cases warrant sending the defendant to jail; in others, treatment is more appropriate.

"You have to treat [cases] individually," Judge Thieme said. "In some cases, sending a man to jail is not going to solve the problem. If I put everyone who came before me in jail, you couldn't build enough detention centers in the county to hold them."

The courts must take an active role in the treatment process, Judge Thieme said.

"Parole and probation doesn't put anybody in jail. I put people in jail," he said.

Those sentenced to drug treatment by Judge Thieme must return to him in 90 days so he can check if they have been to drug counseling and that no drugs have been found in their urine samples.

"That way [the addict] knows that I'm looking over his shoulder, not some parole and probation officer," said Judge Thieme.

But long-term, inpatient care may not come soon. And if it does, the resources will have to be increased. North Arundel Hospital has neither an inpatient nor an outpatient program. Art Sullivan, who directs the Pathways drug treatment program at Anne Arundel Medical Center, said his inpatient care program is short-term and can only help 40 patients at a time.

Catherine Ness, director of Open Door, a county drug-treatment program, said the county's public and private drug treatment programs treated 5,948 people from July 1993 to September 1994.

Yet, even with the treatment programs in the county and throughout the state, people convicted of drug-related crimes continue to fill the prisons.

With 21,002 inmates, Maryland's prison system is the seventh-most-crowded in the country. Thirteen percent of those inmates are imprisoned for drug offenses, 28.7 percent are in for robbery, theft and burglary, often "drug-driven" crimes, according to police and state prison officials.

"No matter how many people you lock up, the problem is still there," said Mr. Friedman. "If you take a kid off of Clay Street [in Annapolis], another one will take his place. And it's not that we're not locking people up. We're locking people up like there's no tomorrow."

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