Needed: more treatment

October 30, 2005

There are about 165 defendants in Maryland who judges have determined would be better off in drug treatment than in jail. But they sit behind bars because there aren't enough state-funded treatment spaces that are supposed to be specially available for court-ordered rehabilitation. Some judges and defense lawyers have become so frustrated with the situation that the Baltimore County public defender's office argued in court last week that the state is violating its own law and that the executive branch has taken away one of the judiciary's important sentencing options. As a result of increasing public frustration, several judges and representatives of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have started to talk about solving this problem. Ultimately, the state has to come up with more money for treatment.

Judges have long had the option under state law to order certain defendants into structured, long-term residential treatment programs that are generally funded under contracts with the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The law requires the state to find "prompt placement" for defendants who have been ordered into treatment. But defendants are sitting in jails for as long as 18 months waiting for a treatment space. The problem is particularly acute for offenders who have churned through the system a number of times and suffer from both drug and mental health issues.

FOR THE RECORD - Maryland is spending about $4 million for court-ordered long-term drug treatment. An editorial Sunday gave an incorrect figure. The Sun regrets the error.

The agency that deals with drug and alcohol abuse and allocates money for treatment is spending about $3 million - out of a $133 million budget - for the long-term treatment spaces where judges want to send defendants. Given the magnitude of the drug problem, that's hardly enough. Mr. Ehrlich, who favors putting treatment decisions in the hands of county councils that have broad community representation, must recognize that judges need to be able to sentence special defendants into treatment just as they sentence others to prison.

It's a welcome sign that talks have started between the judges and aides to Mr. Ehrlich. The long-term solution, however, is for the administration to reverse course from the last three years and push for more overall spending on drug treatment, making more options available to county councils and to judges.

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