Addicts' lack of treatment frustrates judges

October 30, 2005|By KIM HART | KIM HART,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

In November, Harford County District Judge Mimi R. Cooper sentenced a drug-addicted lawbreaker to long-term treatment instead of jail.

A bed was not available for him, so Cooper sent him to jail to wait for one to open up. But none did before he finished his two-month sentence, and he was released in January.

"He's been arrested at least two more times since then, and he still needs treatment," Cooper said.

During the past year, Cooper has signed more than 11 orders to send similar drug-abusing criminals to rehabilitation rather than jail or prison -- a drug diversion program that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. streamlined last year. So far, only one of those offenders has been placed in a residential treatment center, and the rest languish in jail while they wait for a bed, Cooper said.

Many wait as long as 18 months, nine times longer than the average misdemeanor sentence. Most merely serve out their sentences while waiting.

"It's gotten to the point where lawyers roll their eyes when a defendant stands before me and asks for treatment," Cooper said last week in testimony before a Maryland House of Delegates committee that oversees drug and alcohol abuse issues. "Everyone knows they won't get placement for the treatment they need."

Problems with the drug diversion program extend beyond Harford County. Like Cooper, judges from around the state are expressing frustration at the state's slow response to drug addicts needing treatment.

Judges from Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County sharply criticized Ehrlich's administration for not spending enough money to meet the demand for inpatient drug treatment. Statewide, about 140 people are on the waiting list to fill 200 beds in the drug diversion program.

"I see that many people in one day," said Baltimore District Judge George M. Lipman. "We can't hold someone for two years waiting for a bed in district court."

This year about $4 million -- roughly 3 percent -- of the budget for the state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, which oversees the treatment services, goes to long-term inpatient care for addicts referred from the courts.

An additional $26 million was given to local drug abuse councils for other forms of addiction treatment, but county programs "are not in the business of directly providing residential care through court orders," said Peter Luongo, the agency's director.

"We aren't hooking people up with adequate care fast enough," he said. He estimated that the current funds allow the state to treat about 27 percent of the people who need care. "There's no question we can get better at what we do."

He said the agency has been collecting data showing how effective the drug diversion program has been in helping repeat offenders beat their addictions. He hopes the information will help increase funding after three years without a budget increase.

Alan Friedman, a policy adviser to Ehrlich, said he could not promise additional funds but is confident that the governor supports the program.

"He put the capital on the line in the first place to get this program," he said. "He's committed."

Lloyd G. Merriam, a district public defender in Harford County, said the system's long waits discourage some judges from even considering treatment as an alternative. He also pointed out the extra expense of keeping offenders in jail rather than treatment. It costs about $27,000 a year to keep one person behind bars. Treatment costs roughly the same amount, but many treatment programs last only eight months.

"Treatment isn't cheap, but think of the cost of keeping someone in the division of corrections waiting for a bed," Merriam said. "If they sit there waiting and then go through treatment, then we're paying both those bills."

The majority of offenders are sent to the Second Genesis treatment center in Crownsville, where the state has bought 79 beds for addicted offenders and 20 beds for those with mental illness as well as addiction.

"I bet there are clients waiting two or three years to get in here," said Catherine Martens, the center's executive director.

Recent legislation created a local drug abuse council in each county that will have more oversight on how state funds will be spent for treatment. Friedman argued that the individual councils need to decide how much money they will put aside to treat offenders.

But Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's Democrat who chairs the committee, said the state needs to take responsibility for making sure there is a "closer relationship between funding and beds to meet demand.

"It may take a while, but we've got to see progress," she said. "The [health] department has to put more money into this."

Back in Harford County, Cooper is trying to find a bed for a young mother of three children whom she sentenced to treatment in May. She is serving a 17-month sentence in the county detention center until a bed is free, but the waiting list is 18 months long.

"The people coming before me every day are very sick," she said. "I'm hopeful that eventually when I sign an order, the defendant will get the treatment they need."

Kim Hart writes for the Capital News Service.

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