Drug court could get nod

Task force likely to suggest creating treatment program

Howard County

October 30, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

With months of tours, research and several local and federal grants under its belt, it appears that the Howard County Drug Treatment Court Task Force is about one month away from asking county officials to forge ahead with plans for a drug court.

"Every indication is that the task force will recommend that Howard County implement some kind of drug court model," Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon said yesterday.

Drug courts offer nonviolent offenders a treatment-based alternative to prison. The court places the addict in a treatment program and supervises his or her progress. Sanctions are meted out for relapses or further criminal behavior.

In Baltimore, people entering drug court plead guilty to drug charges and are incarcerated if they do not comply with the program's rules.

About 1,200 similar courts are in operation or planned across the nation. There are eight such working courts in Maryland, including three in Baltimore and one in Annapolis. Anne Arundel, and Talbot counties each have one drug court, while Harford County has two. Prince George's County and Montgomery County also have them in the planning stages, researchers say.

"It's interesting that there's not more activity in Maryland," said Caroline Cooper, director of the Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project at American University in Washington. "There's definitely a need for them."

States such as California, which has more than 100 drug courts, and New York, where the chief judge of the Court of Appeals recently made it a policy to establish one in each county, have taken the lead in the decade-old trend.

McLendon and other task force members will hold a public meeting at 7 p.m. today in the Tyson Room of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City to review their New York City and Baltimore-area drug court tours taken this summer and update residents about their findings.

"Over the course of the last few months, several people have approached me to say drug court is a great idea," McLendon said. "Citizens want to see a new way of approaching [sentencing] drug offenders."

The Howard state's attorney said many people talked to her about drug courts during National Night Out activities in August.

"The topic kept coming up again and again, and most of the feedback was positive," she said.

Many of the existing drug courts are in areas far from big cities, said Susan P. Weinstein, chief counsel at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, based in Alexandria, Va. Even rural Montana has one, she noted.

"The drugs may be different than in a big city, but they're still there," said Weinstein.

While Howard does not have the sweeping drug problems of a big city, it does face particular challenges because it is sandwiched between Baltimore and Washington, she said.

Howard task force members have toured the long-established Baltimore drug courts and the relatively new ones in Harford County. The tours were funded through a $28,000 grant from Horizon Foundation, which has provided additional money to study the feasibility of a Howard drug court.

Baltimore's district drug court program has been in operation for about seven years. In that time, only 10 percent of the 700 graduates have had documented relapses, said Donna-Lisa McClendon, assistant state's attorney in the Baltimore district drug treatment court.

"So far, it's working really well," McClendon said. "It doesn't work for everybody, but there are a lot of benefits to having a drug court."

She said drug courts unclog regular court dockets and cut costs - in Baltimore, it costs about $30,000 to incarcerate someone for one year, but $4,000 to provide a year of treatment.

By December, Howard task force member Marna McLendon said her group hopes to decide whether the county should have a drug court and, if so, what kind.

The task force will have at least one more public meeting, tentatively set for Nov. 27 in Savage, and has lined up a federal grant to travel to three drug court planning workshops next year, McLendon said.

Attending those workshops on procuring federal grant money will put Howard County in a "priority position for federal drug court money," she said.

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