Agency focusing on drug treatment

50% of probationers flout judges' orders to attend, director says

September 13, 1999|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The agency leading reform of Baltimore's crippled justice system is focusing on improving drug treatment for criminal offenders, opening the door for a broad -- and possibly heated -- debate about the city's twin evils of drugs and crime.

John H. Lewin Jr., director of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, told council members last week that treatment is desperately inadequate. He asked all participants -- police, jail officials, judges, prosecutors and public defenders -- to designate staff to examine the status of drug treatment in this city whose 60,000 addicts are responsible for much of the crime.

Lewin said his research indicated that about half the city's estimated 8,000 criminal offenders on probation flout judges' orders to attend drug treatment. Sanctions can be slow in coming, he said, and probation agents may not learn that the offender did not show up for drug treatment until he is arrested in another crime.

"You can't manage a system where half the people that are supposed to be dealt with aren't getting treatment," Lewin said. "They are going into the wrong program, the slots are filled or they are getting lost."

Several criminal justice experts agree with Lewin's general assessment. But they say the situation is slowly improving with a new program by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services called "Break the Cycle," which intensely monitors those on probation and parole.

Still, it is undisputed that Baltimore does not have enough public treatment programs for criminal offenders. Research by Faye Taxman, a criminologist with the University of Maryland, estimates that about 13,200 people on probation or parole are ordered to attend drug treatment programs annually.

Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc. (BSAS), a nonprofit group that contracts with 42 treatment programs for the Health Department, says it can treat 3,400 criminal offenders. The criminal justice agencies are given a small portion of BSAS' slots.

"There are more people in Baltimore City that are in need of treatment than we have treatment slots available," said Andrea M. Evans, BSAS president.

Some offenders obtain private treatment and others receive in-house drug education through the public safety department. But the majority of offenders in Baltimore are sent to BSAS.

State officials have been fighting to improve the city's drug treatment programs for three years, locking horns routinely with BSAS. State officials consider the agency ill-run and laissez faire in its approach to treatment.

As a sign of the tension, three years ago the state put controls on $2 million in funding for treating offenders, dictating how treatment programs would be paid. State officials were concerned about high "no-show" rates -- when offenders do not appear for treatment -- and about scant communication between BSAS and criminal justice agencies.

The treatment programs funded by the $2 million are paid on a fee-for-service basis. State officials say that type of pay arrangement gives centers more incentive to make people show up -- and continue treatment.

"On a grant basis, [the treatment programs] don't have near the financial incentive, because [on a fee-for-service basis] they don't get paid unless [offenders] show up," said a knowledgeable state official who asked not to be identified. "We've been trying to work it out with them for a long time. We've come a tremendous distance, but we have a tremendous distance to go."

The state and city health departments signed a memo of understanding in 1997 promising to work together and have treatment programs tell probation agents when offenders did not appear. Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said some treatment programs are telling agents whether offenders come for treatment, but others are not.

"We must sit down and make sure agreements are adhered to," Sipes said. "That's how we are going to protect public safety in Baltimore, and that's how we're going to protect public safety in Maryland. There is no room for turf battles when it comes to public safety."

Evans, the BSAS president, said as far as she knew centers were telling agents about no-shows.

"We have not been advised that that is a particular problem," Evans said.

No one has hard data to show how many criminal offenders are "no-shows" and how many attend drug treatment programs.

Evans said the 50 percent no-show rate she gave Lewin, of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, is anecdotal. She collected the figures orally from the treatment programs.

The number reflects only the offenders who don't show up for their first appointment. Others could appear later, complying with the treatment order. Evans said she does not keep statistics about who eventually does come in for treatment. The state probation department should keep those, she said.

But the probation department does not. Sipes said he knows statistics for only one of three criminal justice programs.

In that $500,000 program -- the smallest -- 1,400 offenders were sent to treatment last year. About 1,100, or 78 percent, showed up, he said.

Sipes said Taxman, the UM criminologist, is trying to determine how many people do come to treatment.

"They are in the process of documenting everything," Sipes said.

Cooperation and information-sharing between justice agencies and BSAS have been difficult, in part because of BSAS' concerns about a client's right to confidentiality.

For example, criminal justice officials wanted to place probation agents inside treatment programs so they could monitor attendance -- but Evans refused.

So now, six agents are assigned to keep on top of some programs -- from offices in the probation department.

"The treatment program is a treatment program," Evans said. "It is not the court."

Pub Date: 9/13/99

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