Drug court turns away admissions

Circuit judge orders doors closed due to lack of resources

Program seeks funding

State officials consider request, but criticize city's spending

January 20, 2000|By Caitlin Francke and Michael Dresser | Caitlin Francke and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A popular drug treatment program supervised by Baltimore judges is over capacity and turning away addicts until additional state funding is provided, court officials say.

State officials said they'll consider the request, but criticize the program for exceeding its budget. And they say it could still be accepting some addicts.

On Jan. 10, Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller ordered the Drug Treatment Court to stop taking new offenders for the next two months because there are not enough probation agents, treatment slots or funds to run the program successfully.

"What's the purpose of having a waiting list so overwhelming that we can't process them?" Heller said. "We are setting them up to fail."

The program was designed for 600 offenders but now has more than 700 people enrolled, according to probation officials. About 200 are waiting for treatment slots, Heller said. Each of the 11 specially trained probation agents is handling 66 cases, rather than the 50 they were meant to handle.

A committee of judges, lawyers and court officials has asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening for $1.3 million in emergency funding for the program, widely considered a success. The program now receives $2.1 million from the state annually.

Some Baltimore justice officials are worried that funding request for the drug court will be overshadowed by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's Break the Cycle program, in which agents are monitoring 19,500 parolees and probationers for drug use.

"A lot of times what happens with governmental programs is it's one or the other," said Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who heads the city's criminal docket. "When you are going into war, I assume the strategists just don't take tanks."

But administration officials say Baltimore court leaders are over-reacting. Townsend has publicly expressed support for both programs, they say. The problem, they say, is the drug court program went over budget and expanded beyond original plans.

Administration officials questioned whether the cut-off in new admissions was necessary. Adam Gelb, Townsend's chief adviser on crime issues, said the Division of Parole and Probation has reported that the program could accept up to 50 new offenders each month, as offenders graduate and leave the program.

In a Nov. 30 letter to the drug treatment court committee, Townsend rebuked court officials for failing to adhere to their budget. She pointed out that her office had financed a $1.5 million expansion of the program and had provided three additional probation agents.

"Despite these additional resources, the drug court has now committed itself to further expansion beyond its budgeted capacity, without advance planning or available funding to support commitments to defendants," she wrote.

The brewing tension surfaced in the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council's Jan 1. report to the legislature about court reforms. The council, formed to repair the city's fractured justice system, expressed skepticism of Townsend's program.

The probation department does not have the resources to run the program "in a timely or effective way," the report says. "Moreover, without the power of arrest, probation officers have little leverage to impose sanctions without Court involvement."

The drug court, set up in 1994, differs from Townsend's program in that it targets selected offenders. Also, judges -- rather than probation agents -- have the final say on an offender's fate.

Under the program, nonviolent drug offenders deemed amenable to treatment trade jail time for intensive monitoring for as long as 18 months. Offenders are brought into court about twice a month to have their treatment performance evaluated. If they are doing badly, the judge can put them in jail.

More than 400 people have graduated from the program. Heller said the recidivism rate is about 7 percent. A full analysis of the program is expected this month.

"The program is the most effective thing we've seen in combating the addiction," Heller said.

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