Drug court awaits cases

Pilot program under way after years of discussion

`Matter of getting the word out'

Dozen already operating elsewhere in Maryland

Howard County

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 Court 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 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 on 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 began in 2001 and now 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. 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.

But getting Howard's court off the ground has been anything but quick or easy.

Getting started

After the Delta Project, a comprehensive look at drug issues in the county, recommended the idea in early 2001, county and court officials began to take a close look at drug courts in Maryland and across the country.

They decided that a court for adults at the District Court level, where most minor crimes are heard, would be the most feasible way to start.

But last fall's news that the Howard project did not receive a coveted federal start-up grant - up to $500,000 over three years - meant a full-scale court was out of the question for now. Instead, officials decided to create a smaller court that could handle as many as 15 defendants with the help of smaller block grants.

"We probably hold the record for the longest-planned drug court in the United States," joked Becker, who has been spearheading the effort, which was originally championed by former Howard State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon.

Expansion plans

Drug court officials say they are still hoping for enough grant money to open a full-scale court that would soon handle defendants with drug or alcohol problems. The county is waiting to hear whether it will receive two grants - one for $100,000 through the State Highway Administration for the alcohol component and the other for $450,000 through the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance for both pieces of the hybrid court, Becker said.

And they are hoping to eventually expand the concept to other courts in the county - at the Circuit Court level or to juvenile defendants.

For now, though, court officials are working on the pilot program - and on having defendants on board in time for the next session, July 14.

"It just takes awhile to get these programs off the ground," said Michael A. Weal, chief of the District Court division in the state's attorney's office. With no funding for a prosecutor dedicated to the court, Weal is handling drug court cases for his office, which acts as the gatekeeper for identifying participants. "I think it deserves a shot because we're not winning the battle."

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