Drug treatment would aid court reform, report says

With programs unavailable for addicted offenders, Baltimore system clogged

July 03, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's broken court system can be repaired, but the real solution to unclogging the system lies in drug treatment programs, according to the coordinator of a group trying to reform the justice system.

John Henry Lewin Jr. of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council told legislators, justice officials and the lieutenant governor in a report this week that drug treatment is the best way to solve the court crisis. The council was formed in the winter after four murder suspects and other criminal defendants were set free because of trial delays.

Lewin said judges are often frustrated when they order a defendant into a treatment program, only to find there are not enough spaces or the treatment program is inadequate. About 75 percent of criminal cases are drug-related, a proportion that is expected to increase, he said.

"We can fix the system, but fixing the system isn't going to change the great quantity of drug-related crime that we are all faced with," Lewin said. Treatment "ought to be made available immediately," he said.

Lewin's comments came in an interim report updating court officials on the council's progress. In the report, he pressed state legislators to consider putting "major money" into drug treatment programs.

Drug crimes are "clogging up our court system," he said.

Del. Peter Franchot, chairman of a key public safety budget sub-committee, said he favored increasing funding for drug treatment, but not until reforms are made in the city's courts.

"The prerequisite for new monies will be reforms in the existing system," said Franchot, Montgomery County Democrat.

Lawmakers, joined by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, have threatened to withhold $17.8 million from criminal justice agencies unless meaningful changes are made.

In addition to the recommendation for more drug treatment money, Lewin said that public defenders will represent defendants at bail review hearings beginning July 14 in an effort to speed cases through the system.

The council is also trying to improve technology so that criminal justice agencies -- the state's attorney's office, the Police Department, the Office of the Public Defender and the courthouse -- can communicate with each other.

The council also is studying the creation of a courtroom to handle cases in which defendants are accused of violating their probation. Currently, those accused of probation violations must appear before their sentencing judge, a requirement that can take months and contributes to the backlog of pending criminal cases.

Lewin said the council hopes to change that by allowing any judge to hear probation-violation cases.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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