A specialized drug treatment court could be operating in Howard County by July 2003 if officials move the project forward, according to an interim report on the idea issued yesterday.
With 80 percent of the county's jail inmates and criminal defendants involved somehow with substance abuse, and 72 percent of civil cases involving termination of parental rights also affected, the committee studying the court idea feels it is needed.
For now, the 24-member work group is asking only for enough money for one co- ordinator to bring the concept to fruition.
"I think it is very important on a number of levels. It moves us into a problem-solving mode. This is a different way of doing business," said Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, who released the report.
It would remove the adversarial nature of courts that exists now, she said, because defendants who agree to participate also agree to plead guilty. And McLendon said costs can be kept down because most agencies can simply rearrange staff members rather than hire new ones.
Hard decisions must be made about what types of cases to address - adult, juvenile and family.
For Richard M. Krieg, president and chief executive officer of the Horizon Foundation, which funded the six-month, $28,000 study, "the devil is in the details."
The concept has been proven successful in other places, he said. The key to getting a drug court in Howard County is reaching consensus among the players and working out how the court would work and how the treatment would operate.
For County Executive James N. Robey, the question is money - even enough to pay for one coordinator.
"I'm committed to it, but there are a lot of things I'm committed to that I can't do," he said. "I can't say yet. I don't know if we can afford it."
Robey is facing a projected $18 million budget shortfall between now and July 1, and prospects for next year's revenues are equally dim.
According to the 15-page report, "A drug treatment court is in a unique position to significantly impact the offender's behavior" because it can:
Get people into treatment under the threat of criminal prosecution.
Make comprehensive treatment available.
Monitor each person's treatment and performance.
Build desire and character in people through a system of rewards and penalties that re-inforces structure in their lives and accountability for behavior.
Howard wants to target more chronic offenders, the report said, unlike courts in Anne Arundel and Harford counties, which limit participation to first-time offenders.
Anne Arundel County District Judge James Dryden, who oversees that county's 5-year-old effort, said it has been successful, with an 11 percent rate of recidivism for those who successfully go through the program.
"What makes drug courts help more is the supervision the court is able to do - to impose a quick sanction," Dryden said.
He said the court's ability to coordinate services can also help with problems related to drug abuse-like depression. "It's a global approach."
He cited the results published yesterday of a study of nearly 1,000 Baltimore addicts who received treatment, noting that use of alcohol, cocaine and heroin dropped by more than 60 percent within a month after treatment began.
The study group agreed that if offenders could avoid substance abuse relapses, crime would go down in Howard County.
Now, judges try to deal with each case as it comes up, but coordination is lacking, especially when a crisis - such as an arrest - makes a defendant more amenable to treatment.
The goal, the report said, "would be to begin treatment almost immediately after arrest."
The Maryland Court of Appeals is encouraging the creation of drug courts through a new Judiciary Drug Treatment Court Commission.
Members of the Howard group also traveled to New York, Miami, and New Orleans to learn about drug courts and attend conferences, and federal grants may be available to help pay the cost.
For a drug treatment court for adults only, the study group estimates a first-year added operating cost of just less than $500,000.
That price tag, Robey said, would be too high, even with grant help. "It can't cost a half-million," the executive said.
McLendon said she wants to move forward: "I still believe the concept is a good one for Howard County and could happen in July 2003. I think this is doable."