Treatment and accountability

February 25, 2004

IT'S HARD TO believe that a program offering to divert drug offenders from jail to treatment wouldn't be full - and have a waiting list. But neither is the case with the $1.1 million Felony Drug Initiative under way in Baltimore Circuit Court. Astonishingly, only one defendant has been placed in the pilot project that began four months ago to serve 120 offenders. In a city of 40,000 to 60,000 addicts, where drug felony arrests have tripled since 2002 and established drug treatment courts are turning people away, something's wrong here.

Perhaps the objective of the one-year project was too ambitious - to get nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders into treatment within 35 days of arrest, instead of the usual 60 to 90. The project's non-start shows what can happen if public defenders don't view treatment as in their client's best interest, if screening is haphazard, and if eligibility criteria are narrowly drawn. Demand for drug treatment far outweighs availability, and that's why opportunities such as the Felony Drug Initiative must not be lost.

The federal funds were offered to the city as a one-time public health initiative last year. But the project had trouble from the get-go.

The program targeted low-level drug offenders who hadn't been convicted of a crime in 10 years. But candidates recommended by the public defender's office came with other baggage - a pending assault case, for example - and the state's attorney's office had to reject them. While some public defenders felt they didn't have time to screen candidates, their clients couldn't make a decision. As one veteran public defender put it: "They are throwing up in baggies at bail review."

Those sound like excuses. But they also reflect the reality of dealing with an addicted offender, who may not be ready to accept help, and the pressures of a criminal justice system that needs to move cases in a timely manner. Let's face it: For some drug offenders, a suspended sentence - better yet, an acquittal on a felony drug charge - means a quicker return to the street and a needle in the arm.

No one wanted to give up on the project, but working out the kinks over months has left a desperate need unmet. That should change this week, when a veteran public defender begins overseeing the screening of suspected drug offenders for the project and trains younger colleagues in what to look for. Candidates also will be recruited at a defendant's first court appearance - weeks after arrest, but with the prospect of a 24-hour turnaround from a courtroom plea to admission to a treatment program.

So far, city officials say, only $14,817 of the federal grant has been spent, on hiring two staffers to evaluate eligibility of offenders and assess treatment needs. The sooner they get to work on what they were hired to do, the better. Drug addiction only intensifies with time.

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