Courts' plan not enough for addicts, some say

Chronic offenders often failed by system, they say

March 02, 2003|By Jennifer Blenner | Jennifer Blenner,SUN STAFF

Miriam Landa has been arrested more than two dozen times in one year because of her addiction to drugs. But she has served only 60 days in jail, she says.

"If I didn't have a good lawyer, I would have been sitting in jail after the second or third time," said Landa.

She may soon have to serve more time because, she said, she is in violation of her probation by not being in treatment and faces court appearances on prescription fraud charges in Baltimore County on Wednesday and in Harford County on March 26.

Landa has been in and out of courts since her first arrest in 1999 in Parkville. Her court procedure has been the same: She is convicted, receives jail time, but doesn't have to serve it as long as she meets the conditions of probation. Along with probation come many stipulations, including alcohol and drug testing, counseling, treatment, court dates and compliance with a probation officer.

"Whatever they want me to do, I have to do," she said.

Montgomery County Detective Barry Collier, who has arrested Landa several times, said she is walking a very thin tightrope. She has excellent attorneys and is kept out of jail because of health issues, he said.

Landa is a chronic offender, and Collier feels the courts aren't doing enough for drug addicts like Landa.

"They are cutting them loose too fast," he said. "All the courts do is detox them. They need support groups, and they need to have a program in place for them," he said.

"My version of the court system is giving everyone an opportunity to live and complete the tasks from the court," he said.

Twenty-five percent of cases he handles are situations similar to Landa's, Collier said. "I arrest them on Monday, they will be back on the streets, and by Friday I am arresting them again."

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz has dealt with the spectrum of drug defendants in his 18 years on the bench.

"Eighty to 90 percent of criminal cases involve people with a substance-abuse problem," he said, adding that this is a conservative figure.

There are no clear-cut answers, he said. The charges depend on the individual, and most judges just incarcerate someone, which doesn't accomplish much, Levitz said. He said another mistake is putting everyone in treatment, which he refers to as "naive and simplistic." A person has to want to stop using for treatment to work, he said. Jails offer offenders a chance to realize their actions have consequences, he said.

Some people are in denial, and if they don't deal with the underlying cause, they will relapse, said Cindy Mogil, who is a recovering prescription drug addict of 25 years and author of the book Swallowing a Bitter Pill. They have to want to recover, she said.

Most users are creative and manipulative to get what they want, Mogil said, and it is rare that they get caught until they start criminal behavior.

"It is an easy solution: It's a choice not to abuse," she said.

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