Drug offender treatment in jeopardy

Balto. Co. may change program requirements

February 26, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A drug treatment program in Baltimore County that is often used by judges as an alternative to jail for nonviolent offenders could be forced out of business by new requirements from county government, program officials said.

Right Turn of Maryland, described as the only treatment center of its kind in the state, would have to overhaul its program to comply with terms of a proposed county contract, said John Goings, who runs the program. Right Turn's 10-year contract with the county expires in June, and the new requirements could reduce the number of beds, extend patient stays and take away a lucrative aftercare element of the program.

"At this time we don't know if we're going to bid on it or not," Goings said of the county's request for a proposal.

County officials said that they are not seeking major changes to the program and that they have been pleased with Right Turn's performance. The new contract, on which any vendor can bid, doesn't change much other than the way the program is funded, they said.

Many of Right Turn's concerns will be addressed at a pre-bid meeting this morning, said Sheryl Goldstein, the county's criminal justice coordinator.

But lawyers and judges who work regularly with Right Turn - many of whom were not aware that there were any proposed changes - said they saw no reason for the county to tinker with a successful program. It would be a huge loss, they said, if the program dissolved.

"We're going to lose the only accessible rehabilitative program we have in the county," said lawyer T. Wray McCurdy. "It's mind-boggling."

The for-profit, privately run Right Turn program opened 10 years ago in the Rosewood Center campus in Owings Mills. It was originally intended as a secure rehabilitation center for people convicted of drunken driving but soon incorporated criminal defendants with a variety of other substance abuse problems.

In the first few years after it opened, judges were reluctant to send defendants to Right Turn, those familiar with the program said. But as its success grew, Right Turn became a key part of the county's criminal justice system.

"It was very, very important," said former Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II, who retired from the bench last year. "They managed to turn around many people that other programs were not successful in turning around. I just had a lot of very, very good luck with them."

Judges regularly send defendants to Right Turn as a condition of probation or instead of jail, said Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II.

Goings, of Right Turn, said his organization saves the county 12,000 to 15,000 "inmate days" each year - days the county would have to pay to keep someone in jail. Although the number of people in the program fluctuates, he estimated that it serves 100 at a time in its 28-day in-patient program and hundreds of others in once-a-week aftercare.

Many of those referred to Right Turn are from the Baltimore County justice system, but the patients do not have to be residents of the county. Patients pay for their care on a sliding scale, and can use money earned at work release for their treatment. Various grants also cover those who cannot afford treatment.

"For the life of me, I can't understand why they dramatically want to change it," Goings said.

But Goldstein, the county criminal justice coordinator, said the changes are simply ways of adjusting the program to make funding more secure. Currently, the ebb and flow of grant money affects whether needy residents can enter the program.

"This creates a stable source of funding so that the clients in the criminal justice system with the greatest need are ensured 120-day length of stay for residential treatment," she said.

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