Howard Co. drug court patiently awaits cases

Pilot program under way after years of discussion

July 06, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The day had been billed as the first official session of Howard County's fledgling drug court, but with no defendants in sight, Howard District Judge Louis A. Becker III hit the VCR's play button.

Instead of dispensing rehabilitative justice, the key players in the new court would have to settle for hashing out last-minute details around a conference room table and watching a training video.

"What we're doing here, this is really a pilot project," Becker said. "We're building the field ... and now, we need some players."

More than three years after the idea of an intensive, treatment-based court for drug offenders became the subject of serious study in Howard County court circles, organizers were ready to bring it to fruition. They hired a drug court coordinator. They put out an ad for a clinical case manager to handle defendants. They even set a start date -- June 30.

But with a shoestring budget, scant resources and a concept new to the county, court officials said that date was more a "target" than a sure thing.

Add in a few ill-timed happenings -- a prosecutors conference and the new coordinator's previously planned vacation -- and the likelihood of a full-fledged session Wednesday became more and more remote as the day approached.

Still, Becker and others said they know a new court is going to take some time to take hold in the county as lawyers and others learn about the concept and begin to buy into it.

"I think it'll come. I think it's a matter of getting the word out and getting a confidence level," said Becker, the county's most veteran District Court judge and the drug court's primary judge.

The court may start slowly, but once attorneys and others begin to take notice, the referrals will start flowing in, said Prince George's County Circuit Judge Maureen M. Lamasney, who serves as the judge for her county's adult drug court. The Prince George's Court, which started in 2001 and handles about 100 defendants, has been a worthwhile venture, she said.

"I think you really make a difference in the life of the individual, in the life of their family, and, I really think, in the life of our county," she said.

It's a concept that has long been researched for Howard County: a court that offers nonviolent offenders with serious drug problems a program of intensive judicial monitoring through frequent court hearings combined with counseling and treatment plans. Under the drug court model, those who do well are rewarded, while those who don't receive sanctions.

More than 1,000 communities nationwide have drug courts up and running. In Maryland, a dozen courts are operating and another 12 or 13 -- including Howard's -- are in the planning phases or on the brink of starting, according to statewide drug court officials.

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