Drug Court offers support

Anne Arundel rewards recovering addicts who stay in program

Businesses donate gifts

October 08, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

They're not expensive or extravagant, but the tokens of encouragement given to the recovering drug addicts are meant to carry a valuable message of support.

"A lot of these people have never been rewarded," said Janet Simpson, coordinator of Anne Arundel County's Drug Court.

For the first time in its four-year history, the court has started giving out small presents - diploma frames, movie tickets, meal vouchers - to reinforce the efforts of addicts working to graduate from Drug Court and rebuild their lives.

The rewards have been made possible through a partnership between Drug Court and local businesses, which have donated items to the program, some with the hope that the addicts they help might become future employees.

County officials believe Anne Arundel's Drug Court is the first in the state to offer incentives with the support of local businesses - an initiative used by drug courts in other states, including California and Washington - to encourage nonviolent offenders to complete required therapy and stay drug-free.

Susan Weinstein of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which is based in Alexandria, Va., said that businesses in San Bernadino, Calif., sponsored a parade for Drug Court graduates and that Seattle companies donate coffee mugs inscribed with graduates' names.

"Even if it's just a key chain, it's a big deal [to the participants]," Weinstein said. "Businesses feel like they're investing in their own community because [the program] may stop people from shoplifting and loitering and provide them with workers that are drug-free."

Defendants in drug cases who are eligible to participate in the Anne Arundel's voluntary Drug Court program may plead guilty in exchange for treatment. They receive no jail time. If participants fail drug tests while in the program, a judge can order a night in jail, intensified addiction counseling or a longer commitment to the program.

Graduates of Drug Court receive diplomas and their cases are placed in an inactive file. Before the reward initiative was begun, program participants said concrete gestures of support along the road to graduation were lacking.

"There wasn't any real positive strokes, that's why we think this idea is working pretty well," said Barry Wilen, executive director of Alcohol and Drug Recovery, a private treatment provider, and former chairman of the Substance Abuse Treatment Council of Anne Arundel.

"Some felt the court was too heavy on the sanctions and not doing enough for incentives," said Bob Burdon, president and chief executive officer of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce. "But incentives cost money."

It was money the largely grant-funded program didn't have.

But after attending a national conference in New Orleans in June, Drug Court administrators came back with the idea of asking the chamber of commerce to help persuade local businesses to donate rewards.

Administrators said they thought the donations would be a good way for companies to invest in the community and to help rehabilitate the kind of offender whose crimes - such as shoplifting - affect their businesses.

It was a premise that made sense to Crown Theatres and Office Depot in Annapolis Harbour Center, and to Chick-fil-A and Old Country Buffet restaurants in Annapolis.

Crown Theatres contributed movie passes. Chick-fil-A and Old Country Buffet gave meal vouchers for participants and their families. Office Depot donated diploma frames and calendars for participants to keep track of their appointments, which include court reviews, support group meetings and treatment dates.

"For many people, even these simple items have given them the tools to get back in the job force," said Office Depot manager Andrew Wright, who added that his store would consider hiring graduates, a consideration Drug Court officials say other businesses have expressed.

"It's advantageous for us to be involved in rehabilitating first-time offenders," Wright said.

Simpson, the county's Drug Court coordinator, remembers a young man's tears two months ago during graduation after he was given a pair of movie tickets.

"He was a young married man with a heroin addiction," Simpson recalled. "We gave him the tickets and he started to cry. He had struggled a lot."

Drug Court officials said they hope the incentives help the program further reduce recidivism rates. Ten percent of the 160 people who graduated from Drug Court in 1999 were rearrested within a year, according to the state's attorney's office. Of the 358 people who were eligible for the program in 1999 but declined to participate, 46 percent were rearrested.

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