Successes and failures

March 15, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Not so long ago, Needra Bland lived for her "dope 'n' coke," and to pay for those heroin-and-cocaine cocktails she would shoplift meat or cash stolen checks, sell drugs or sell herself. Pennsylvania and Gold was her drug corner of choice; she flopped in stash houses while others reared her kids.

Now drug-free, she is reacquainted with her two children and living in a midtown Baltimore apartment. She's a member of the Baltimore drug court's first graduating class, and hers is just the kind of turnaround officials envisioned when they devised a program offering drug treatment to addicted, petty criminals.

But even as the $2.3 million Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court marks it first birthday this month by touting recoveries such as Ms. Bland's, the program is operating at barely a third of its 600-person capacity.

"What we're doing, I think we're doing correctly. If we had 600 in the program right now, I'd give it an A. But because we only have a third of that in the program now, I'll give it a B-," said Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the city Circuit Court and a member of the committee that oversees the drug court.

As Baltimore officials continue to discuss alternatives to the lock-'em-up approach to fighting drugs and crime, the launching of the drug court program in the district and circuit courts illustrates the challenges of rewiring the criminal justice system.

"This has been a learning experience for us in the first year," said Thomas H. Williams, a state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services administrator who is project director for the drug court. "Sure, we'd all like to have big numbers, we'd all like to say we're helping a thousand people. But the reality of the situation is, you have to start all programs slowly and build up."

Launched with fanfare in March 1994, the program is designed to free jail cells for dangerous criminals by steering nonviolent, addicted criminals into drug treatment. But it wasn't until last month that the program, which is funded in large part by federal grants, reached 200 participants.

Tight standards

The tentative start results in part from tight eligibility standards prompted by fears of a public relations disaster if a participant committed a serious crime after being released to the streets.

Other reasons cited were a bottleneck blamed on the city prosecutor's office and a crack in the system allowing some eligible defendants to slip past the initial screening.

Drug court statistics show that more than 13,000 defendants had been screened by early February and that more than 11,000 were ineligible. Of the 200 who made it into the program, about 50 are listed as "delinquent," meaning they haven't complied with the terms of their treatment and, in some cases, have had warrants issued for their arrest. Officials said 22 have been kicked out of the program for failing to comply.

Seven participants will leave the program at its first "graduation" on March 23. Needra Bland says she'll be there.

"I earned it," she says. "For once in my life I have accomplished something on my own."

When the drug court opened a year ago, three addicts met the press. Like Ms. Bland, Wanda McMillion and Rosetta Nance described the program as a lifeline. All three vowed that their drug days were over.

Many relapses

But program administrators expected many participants to relapse -- 50 percent to 60 percent have tested positive for drugs in the first year, Mr. Williams said.

Ms. McMillion, placed on probation last March for shoplifting from a grocery store, returned to court March 3 to answer another shoplifting charge.

The 35-year-old East Baltimore woman was given an 18-month suspended sentence and ordered to perform 40 hours of community service but was allowed to remain in the drug court program.

Ms. Nance's future with the program is in question. In September, after her continued drug use while in the program led her to receive inpatient treatment, Ms. Nance was charged with shoplifting seafood from a supermarket. She pleaded guilty to the charge in November but was allowed to stay in the drug court program.

Then, she did not show up in court in January to explain why she had completed fewer than eight of the 50 hours of community service assigned to her. Although Judge Jamey H. Weitzman requested a warrant for her arrest, none was issued until March 9. Last night, Judge Weitzman said she has not received notice that the 30-year-old Northwest Baltimore woman has been apprehended.

Those two cases illustrate the inevitable frustrations that come with trying to help addicts, but prosecutor Deborah Marcus describes Ms. Bland's recovery as "gratifying."

Ms. Bland's probation agent, Neil Woodson, wrote in his reports, "She continues to amaze and strive. . . . Her recovery has been virtuous. . . . She lives life to the fullest."

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