Level of addict services decried

Judges say Md. must fund more treatment

October 26, 2005|By ALEC MACGILLIS | ALEC MACGILLIS,SUN REPORTER

Three Baltimore-area judges leveled blunt criticism at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration yesterday, contending that a shortage of funding has made it all but impossible for them to sentence addicted lawbreakers to long-term drug treatment rather than jail or prison.

The judges told a House subcommittee overseeing substance abuse issues that they had grown increasingly tired of being told that defendants they had sentenced to treatment would have to wait as long as 18 months for an inpatient slot to open. Defendants cost the state more money sitting behind bars waiting for openings, the judges said, and often see their jail terms end before a treatment slot becomes available.

The judges said the state health department, by failing to make enough treatment slots available, was effectively violating a state law that empowers judges to commit defendants with serious drug problems to inpatient treatment and that requires the health department make room for them promptly.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Oct. 26 editions misstated the amount of money the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration spends on long-term residential treatment slots for addicted offenders referred by the courts. The agency spent about $4 million on such referrals last year.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"It is absolutely unacceptable to get a letter that says, `Your bed is available in 2007,'" said Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth. Those on waiting lists are "sitting in an environment that's not only not conducive to solving their problem, but one that will encourage them to look to their next fix."

The judges' testimony was delivered one day after a public defender made a similar argument before a District Court judge in Baltimore County, arguing in an unusual pleading that the health department was violating the law by failing to make room for a defendant who was sentenced to inpatient treatment in June but is facing a yearlong wait for a bed. The judge in that case, Nancy M. Cohen, instructed the parties in the case to draft a petition for "constructive civil contempt" against the state.

The state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, the agency that oversees treatment within the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, has a budget of $133 million, of which about $3 million is devoted to long-term inpatient slots for people referred from the courts. Though Ehrlich has spoken strongly in favor of treatment as an alternative to prison, the agency's overall budget has remained flat in the past three years.

Peter Luongo, the director of the treatment agency, said at yesterday's hearing that the agency has been working hard to collect data showing how well treatment works, and that this will hopefully help it win more funding next year. He acknowledged that the waiting lists were a problem.

"There's no question that there's a demand that outstrips capacity," he said.

Ehrlich's top drug policy adviser, Alan Friedman, declined to promise any budget increases when pressed about the flat funding by the committee's chairwoman, Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's County Democrat. He said that local health departments bore some responsibility for using some of their treatment funds to find slots for lawbreakers sentenced to inpatient care.

Under legislation passed last year, he said, the state is delegating more control over treatment oversight to new councils at the county level. It is up to local officials, he said, to make the difficult decisions about how much money to give to treatment for offenders, versus treatment for others.

Baltimore District Judge George M. Lipman disputed this, saying that state law specifically requires the state to find room for those sentenced to treatment, not local governments. "We are committing people from our branch to the executive branch," he said.

The judges said that the waiting list for inpatient slots, now about 140 people long, was keeping many judges from considering the treatment option. Harford County District Judge Mimi R. Cooper said it's gotten to the point where she felt "embarrassed" when she sentenced someone to treatment last week because the lawyers in the courtroom knew that most of the other people she has sent that route are still sitting in jail.

"I want what I'm doing to be meaningful and make a difference," she said. "I'm hoping when I sign [a sentence for treatment] that people actually get placed and that I won't see them again."

alec.macgillis@baltsun.com

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