Drug court gives reasons for hope

October 20, 1995|By Stephen H. Chaikin

I HAD SEEN her before on my way home from law school. On Calvert Street, her inability to get me to acknowledge her became a ritual.

Years passed before I saw her again. This time iron bars separated us. I was a public defender trying to get her into Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court. My goal was to get her into treatment for a drug addiction that she supported by selling herself on the street.

Several days after meeting her in jail, I stood beside her in district court. She listened as the judge and I explained what would be expected of her now that she was entering drug treatment court. She said all the right things and responded as if she understood and knew she could not return to her old ways.

Weeks passed and she was back in court for a progress hearing. She stood withered, battered and beaten. Her body's addiction to drugs was stronger than her will. She broke down and cried. The judge asked her to approach the bench alone. The courtroom was silent, except for the defendant's dull whimpering and the judge's strict admonishment.

An ultimatum

They came to an understanding: either she would attend treatment daily or be destined for the arrest-incarceration-release cycle.

I filed her in my mind as just another case. Then, recently, an attractive, well-dressed woman approached me outside the Clarence Mitchell courthouse. She tried to bug me, but I hesitated. Then I noticed those same eyes, albeit more clear, that once I had avoided. She was clean, sober, healthy and happy. She excitedly told me about her new job. She thanked me for the help and motivation she had received. But I knew she was really thanking you -- the citizen and the taxpayer -- and a system with the wisdom to have the city's 19-month-old drug treatment court. It had given her the opportunity to be treated as someone who was ill and needed care, rather than as a criminal.

A welcome alternative

The drug treatment court program is an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system. A system that often results in overcrowded jails, swollen court dockets and an overwhelmed parole and probation division. For these reasons, this alternative method was created to more effectively rehabilitate addicts.

Baltimore City's Drug Treatment Court program intervenes in the lives of non-violent criminal defendants whose crimes are driven by addictions. The federally funded program recognizes that traditional methods designed to reverse the tide of crimes related to substance abuse have been futile. Those who are selected and agree to enter the program remain under court supervision where they receive a range of treatment, counseling, educational and vocational services depending on their specific needs.

Baltimore City has more than 48,000 drug addicts. The Baltimore City Bar Association appointed a special committee in 1991 to examine the correlation between drug abuse and crime.

The committee estimated that nearly 85 percent of all crimes committed in the city are driven by drug addiction. These are convincing statistics and demonstrate a dire need for the continued support of programs like the drug treatment court. With this program, people like my former client can turn from the streets and become productive members of society.

Stephen H. Chaikin, an assistant public defender, writes from Baltimore.

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