Better than jail

Right Turn: Treating substance abusers could reduce crime and the need for more costly cells.

September 13, 2000

BOB DROVE TRUCKS for a living. He also drank a lot and sometimes used drugs. About two years ago, he was arrested with a woman who used a fraudulent credit card. He landed in jail.

"Lucky for me, they sent me to Right Turn," says the bearded, burly former Navy seaman. After graduating from this year-long substance abuse program, he is now a sober, working member of society.

Many of Baltimore County's jail cells are filled with Bobs -- non-violent alcohol and drug abusers who could be better served in a highly structured residential treatment program.

Since 1994, Baltimore County and Right Turn of Maryland LLC have operated such a program in several buildings at the pastoral Rosewood Center in Owings Mills. It has handled an average of 160 criminal referrals annually from Baltimore County over the past five years.

But it could handle many more. Right Turn is also getting referrals from Baltimore City and Carroll and Harford counties.

Initially, Baltimore County judges were suspicious of this for-profit operation and referred very few defendants to Right Turn. Many thought it was a "country club." Slowly, over time, the program has proved its worth, and the referrals have increased.

In 1998, a Baltimore County grand jury report to circuit court judges recommended expanding Right Turn. "We believe that convicted drug users should be admitted to the drug treatment facilities rather than incarcerated," it said.

Making the offender accountable for his or her addiction is the key to the program. With recovery comes responsibility. Offenders -- not taxpayers -- must pay for their fair share for custody, treatment and monitoring. Even those who are indigent must get jobs to pay for their after-care treatment.

The year-long program consists of two parts: a 28-day residential stay and 48 weeks of after care. The tightly structured process is based on the successful 12-step recovery plan first developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Participants must adhere to strict rules, obtain employment and not relapse.

The residential program isn't cheap: $1,540. Clients also pay $25 a week for after-care meetings and monitoring. Fifty percent can afford to pay their own way. State and federal grants take care of all or part of the cost for indigent clients.

In two studies of drunken drivers, the Right Turn clients' re-arrest rate was a stunningly low 4 percent to 7 percent, compared with a 35-percent re-arrest rate for DWI offenders who served jail sentences.

No studies have been done of drug offenders in this program, but Right Turn staff members believe that their clients fare much better than drug abusers who do their time in county jail.

Not only do these clients stay drug-free, according to staff members, but they develop coping skills and, most important, are less likely to commit future crimes.

Before investing $84 million to double the number of beds in Baltimore County's detention center, officials in the Ruppersberger administration should explore investing more money in programs such as Right Turn.

The Rosewood Center, which serves about 500 developmentally disabled people on its large campus, has more than a dozen abandoned but sturdy buildings that could easily be converted into secure residential treatment centers. At the moment, Right Turn is spending $600,000 to restore two Rosewood buildings for use as a separate drug and alcohol treatment center for women, who now share a building with male clients.

Diverting non-violent addicts and alcoholics to such programs would not only mean less taxpayer money spent on bricks and mortar, but also a substantial reduction in the cost of operating a far larger county detention center. The cost of treatment is about $37 a day compared with $45 a day for incarceration.

Experts estimate that 85 percent of non-violent offenders jailed at the county detention center are drug or alcohol abusers. In most of these cases, their criminal behavior stems from their addictions. Many shoplifters and thieves steal to support their habits. Most prostitutes turn tricks to buy drugs. By successfully treating their addictions, their criminal behavior is likely to decline.

Rather than repeatedly incarcerating these drug abusers, shouldn't Baltimore County's goal be to take the Bobs who are languishing in jail and offer them treatment that could turn them into productive members of our community?

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