Funding is still uncertain for drug court plan

Go-ahead is awaited to apply for federal grant

Update scheduled today

Md. approval includes caveat: no state money

January 28, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County officials are aiming to open the county's first-ever drug court in the District Court building by fall -- as long as hoped-for federal funding comes through.

District Court, the home to minor criminal, traffic and civil cases, is a natural starting point for the county's efforts, said Howard District Judge Louis A. Becker III, a co-chair of the planning team that has been studying the idea.

Not only does the court traditionally serve as a first stop for criminal cases as they make their way through the system, it also has more room and resources than the space-strapped Circuit Court building up the street, he said.

"There was some feeling that maybe [starting with District Court] made more sense because of the feeder aspect," Becker said. "Launching here and then to Circuit Court."

The court, which would deal solely with drug and drug-related crimes, would be for adults only, officials said.

But while team members have been visiting court sites and working out the logistics of implementation here, they say they are still left with a large uncertainty -- funding.

Recent approval of the idea from state officials came with a caveat that no state funds be used. And team members are waiting for the go-ahead to apply for a federal grant that could fully fund the drug court during its first three years.

The grant process has been delayed, although the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance Web site says an invitation to apply for grants will be posted on the site by the end of winter, said Bobbie Dillow, who was hired last fall to coordinate the project.

Team members will update the public and any other "stakeholders" on the progress of their plans during a meeting at 4:30 p.m. today in the Howard District Court building.

Howard's plans are part of a growing trend across the country toward the creation of courts that focus heavily on treatment and intensely monitoring the progress of drug offenders.

There are eight active drug courts in Maryland. The first was implemented in Baltimore in 1994. At least a handful more are in the works as jurisdictions look for better ways to fight the drug problems that bring heavy court caseloads, said Gray Barton, executive director of the statewide Drug Court Commission created last year by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

Drug courts "are not the cure-all," he said. "They're one step to fight the issues we have at hand."

In Howard County, about 85 percent of inmates at the Howard County Detention Center were determined to have substance abuse problems.

And more than one-third of the criminal cases examined during a 2 1/2 -month period last summer were found to involve drugs, according to an eight-page analysis put together last year by the county's drug court planning team.

Defendants with drug abuse histories and convictions who face drug-related cases such as possession, theft, burglary, prostitution and credit-card fraud would make up the population of those tried in the drug court, according to the analysis.

The court would exclude defendants on parole and those on probation, unless a probation officer or judge agrees to do otherwise. The exclusion would apply to those with convictions for violent crimes -- with some exceptions.Howard County is looking at Anne Arundel County's drug court as a model, Becker said.

Drug courts can be beneficial because of their intense supervision and the ability to offer both quick praise to those who are improving and sanctions to those who are breaking the rules, said Howard Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, Becker's co-chair on the planning team.

"The benefit of drug court, in my opinion, is `quick response,' " she said. The idea, she said, is to work with defendants to help them control their problems -- and, in the process, keep them from committing new crimes. "And that benefits the whole community."

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