Study lauds drug court Baltimore program reduces recidivism, UM professor finds

Results 'very promising'

Participants get treatment instead of prison sentences

March 22, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The first outside evaluation of Baltimore's 2-year-old drug-treatment court has found that participants were substantially less likely to be arrested for new crimes than they would have been without the experimental program.

Although the results of the study, which are being released at a news conference today, are preliminary, the evaluation's author and those who run the drug court say the statistics show the project is on the right track.

Baltimore's version of drug court there are at least 30 around the country is a blend of law enforcement and tough love in which District Court and Circuit Court judges order participants into treatment instead of prison. Failure is expected to a point and there is a progressive scale of punishment, with prison as the last resort if the addicts don't stay clean.

In the past year, the number of participants in the program has ballooned from about 200 to 775, largely because of a change in eligibility requirements.

The recidivism study by Denise C. Gottfredson, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, tracked the first 145 drug-court participants for six months, comparing their arrest rates with those of a control group of 529 people who had been BTC placed on regular probation.

At first glance, the statistics don't look significant: About 23 percent of those who went through drug court were arrested on new charges, compared with 28 percent of the other probationers.

But Dr. Gottfredson wrote that because the drug court participants had more serious records than the other group, she would have expected 50 percent more to have been arrested again during that time period.

The professor used a statistical model to match the groups based on criminal history, demographic variables and the nature of the crimes for which the drug-court defendants had been convicted.

"That we got any positive results at all is very promising," Dr. Gottfredson said yesterday. "Usually, we don't get this big a reduction on any kind of program."

"I think it shows that you can actually do something to reduce addiction and reduce crime and that thoughtful, smart programs work," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is spearheading an effort to increase alternative sentencing of nonviolent offenders across the state.

"It doesn't say that we miraculously turned every one of these people into an angel playing harps and doing good all over the land," Alan C. Woods III, head of the research and statistics division of the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said of the study.

"It does, however, indicate this program is making solid gains among the people we are bringing into it. And I like that."

To get into the program, the offenders must not have committed a violent crime within the previous five years, and their crimes must have been motivated by addiction.

Of about 900 people who have been involved in the program, 20 percent have been kicked out for failing to adhere to its conditions, said Thomas H. Williams, project director for the court for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Lloyd E. Gales, 29, is one of the success stories. After 16 years of addiction to cocaine, heroin and alcohol, and a series of arrests on drug and theft charges, he entered treatment and went to drug court. Since Mr. Gales graduated from the program last fall, he has been working steaming crabs and lobsters at Obrycki's Crab House and as the live-in manager of a recovery house in Highlandtown.

"Drug court was truly a blessing," Mr. Gales said yesterday. "I started to find out a lot of things about myself. I realized drugs were only a symptom of my problem.

"There's a lot of days when the urge will come. But today I have some tools I can use to combat this thing."

Alfred Blumstein, a professor at the Heinz School of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said chronic drug abusers usually commit new crimes soon sometimes within a few months if they are going to do so.

Dr. Gottfredson's study recommended some improvements in the program, including more uniform monitoring of offenders and clarification of treatment expectations for each client. She said the study should be repeated using a longer follow-up period.

Mr. Gales said that no matter how it is designed, the program won't succeed for everyone.

"You have to want this thing," he said. "There's a lot of people that need it, but you have to want it. If you don't want it, you won't get it. It is work."

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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