Howard County drug court is now in session

First three defendants accepted into program

August 17, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

With more than a month of self-proclaimed sobriety behind her, most of it spent in the Howard County Detention Center on a probation violation, Valerie Conley stood before Howard County District Judge Neil Edward Axel and beamed.

She was ready, she said, for the rigors of the county's new drug court - for the months of intensive treatment and monitoring she hoped would help her stay clean.

"It's time," the 44-year-old Columbia woman told Axel at a hearing last week.

Howard's fledgling drug court is up and running.

More than three years after court officials began to study and plan for a treatment-focused court for drug-addicted defendants and several weeks after the program's official start date, the first three defendants have been accepted into the program.

And drug court officials say they are more than ready to move from a theoretical concept to reality.

"We have clients today. Real clients," said Mary Pizzo, who handles drug court cases for the public defender's office.

The three defendants - one started in the program late last month, two more last week - marked a victory of sorts for court officials who have worked, with scant resources, to pull together the necessary paperwork and to find participants qualified and willing to submit to the intensive program.

Under the drug court concept, nonviolent offenders with serious drug problems agree to a regimen of treatment and counseling, all under the watchful eye of a judge, who sees them frequently at first and less often as the program progresses. The judge can reward them for their successes - and sanction them for their setbacks.

It takes at least nine months for a participant to reach "graduation," and even then, there is an aftercare component to the program, court officials said.

"It's an investment," Axel told a 41-year-old Montgomery County woman after she was accepted into the program. "Just like investing in a business, this is an investment in your future."

There are drug courts in more than 1,000 communities nationwide - including at least a dozen operating in Maryland. Others are being planned.

While Howard officials officially started their court June 30, it wasn't until four weeks later that the first defendant was accepted into the program. Even then, the 21-year-old man's participation was a stretch. His case had originated in Carroll County, not Howard, and his case was further along in the process than most drug court defendants would be.

Howard District Judge Louis A. Becker III, who is the primary judge for the county drug court, acknowledged that the case was unique. "This is a little different from most people we would be getting into this," he said during a drug court session July 28.

But by last week, drug court workers had identified and screened the two female participants and said they had another case in the pipeline. The court had also worked out many of the paperwork kinks that troubled an earlier hearing.

"Everyone was prepared - ready for what they had to do - and the people were willing to take the step," said Bobbie Fine, the court's part-time coordinator. "It went very smoothly."

Pizzo said the two women were good candidates for the new program.

"There are a lot of requirements, a lot of demands on people to be included in it," Pizzo said. "I feel better about it after what we went through. ... I saw the enthusiasm of these women. I thought, `This could go.'"

Conley said she first heard about the new court from inmates at the detention center, where she was jailed on a probation violation warrant for a misdemeanor theft conviction. She said she figured the structure of the program and the extra attention it provides might finally help her stay clean.

"It's like a challenge and a goal you can reach. And it's just time," said Conley, who said she has abused alcohol and marijuana since her late teens and cocaine for the past five or six years.

"I'm so ready to be clean and sober now," she said.

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