Better drug treatment is within city's reach

Reorganization: New directors must exercise tighter control of anti-drug programs, expenditures.

July 11, 1999

IT IS NOT ENOUGH that Baltimore, with an estimated 60,000 heroin and cocaine addicts, ranks among national leaders in public spending for drug treatment. The $33 million-a-year budget must produce tangible results aimed at reducing overall crime and the more than 75 percent of homicides linked to drugs.

So far it hasn't, and that might tempt the next mayor to slash money for anti-drug programs as the city faces escalating deficits. Other donors, confronted with competing requests for money, might also consider cuts.

That must not be allowed to happen.

The Sun has recently scrutinized the operation of the quasi-governmental Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., which manages treatment programs provided by 44 contractors. The verdict: There is too little oversight and too little regard for making sure addicts indeed receive effective treatment.

Accountability, more focused policies and greater attention to cost-effectiveness are required. And unless more slots are provided for offenders ordered into treatment by judges, serious case backlogs in Baltimore's courts are likely to continue.

Needed changes could be on the horizon. The board of BSAS, ultimately responsible for allocating the treatment funds for anti-drug programs, last week unanimously approved the broad outlines of a restructuring plan. Now, it's crucial that the agency not repeat mistakes of the past.

This will require vigilance by elected officials and civic groups because no decision was made about the size of the new BSAS board. That determination will be made in September by the board, in consultation with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson, the BSAS chairman.

At 30 members, the current board is too large and a major impediment to the agency's efficiency. Too many members do not attend meetings or have failed to develop an understanding of complicated treatment issues. This is inexcusable.

A board of 10 to 12 carefully selected members, supplemented by an advisory board, would be better able to oversee policy matters and take full advantage of the benefits to fund-raising that BSAS's nonprofit status affords. The agency's inner circle, however, resists shrinking the board.

With Mr. Schmoke leaving office in December, BSAS will lose a mayor whose strong belief in treatment inspired him to double the agency's budget by redirecting money from other city departments. The next mayor may not share that commitment -- although, in response to recent Sun editorials, most major candidates are addressing the issue of drug treatment.

BSAS must undertake needed reforms and heed the advice of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which was revived early this year to defuse the city's court crisis. The council wants more treatment slots reserved for nonviolent offenders so their cases will stop clogging the overburdened court system. Drug courts that sentence criminals to treatment rather than jail are not meaningful unless sufficient treatment slots are available.

Those slots must be in programs that truly work. If not, the promise of treatment amounts to little more than a hoax on addicts and taxpayers.

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