A neutral approach

November 21, 2005|By TIMOTHY A. MCCARTHY

Can a new idea ease a criminal justice crisis in Baltimore?

Prisoners held too long in jail are released by court order without hearings. A man dies in Central Booking at the hands of overworked correctional officers. The Baltimore City police advise that more than 50,000 people are sought for arrest on various criminal charges. Would a different approach help?

I discovered the process that I describe as "rest without arrest" many years ago when I was the parole agent for Dismas House, then a halfway house for the homeless in southwest Baltimore. An addicted parolee ran away. Let's call him David. His story means more than does his name.

I got the required arrest warrant for David. A few months later, he telephoned me and asked, "Is there any way I can straighten this out? I know I messed up." Following procedure, I replied, "Turn yourself in to the police." David didn't take my advice. I learned later that he had been found floating face down in a railroad tanker car full of molasses.

Telling drug-addicted men who telephone to turn themselves in to the police simply isn't a useful policy. It doesn't work.

These men needed a neutral zone of some kind, a haven where they can restore their shattered lives. When the addicted with active arrest warrants telephoned after David's death, I gave them a different answer: Enter a 28-day drug rehabilitation program instead of going to the police and call me from there.

There are four such inpatient programs in the Baltimore area funded by the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration. Together, they have 146 slots.

In subsequent years, I asked judges throughout the state more than 100 times to cancel their arrest warrants served against fugitive suspects. No judge ever refused my request, and it's not difficult to understand why. They were agreeing to acknowledge the placement of an outlaw to inpatient drug treatment, where he threatened no one, to keep him off the street.

There are outstanding arrest warrants on about 52,000 people who are sought on charges ranging from misdemeanors such as possessing an open container of alcohol to felonies such as armed robbery and assault with intent to murder, according to the Baltimore City police spokesman.

Generally, fugitive suspects who are addicted often will telephone a probation agent seeking to find a way home. They know they have been charged with a crime and that they must answer for it, but they don't want to go to jail. This call provides suspects with the opportunity to check themselves into a rehab facility under the supervision of the court.

A probation officer must immediately notify the judge that the suspect has entered such a facility. A judge almost always concurs with the suspect's decision and permits the suspect to stay in the drug program without ordering his immediate arrest. But the judge does give the probation officer a summons for the suspect's eventual appearance in court.

After 28 days, the suspect, assuming there is good behavior, has put himself into the best possible position for leniency in court when his hearing is held. There still is the possibility of jail time, but the immediate objective has been met: The suspect has been taken off the street.

This "rest without arrest" approach should be made state policy. Clearly, the state should provide additional Baltimore City inpatient treatment slots and not try to depend on the 146 slots now available to accommodate all of those who want to enter the program. Treatment costs about $2,900 a month.

"Baltimore City and the entire nation have learned that jail cells do not cure addiction and treatment is a healthier, cost-effective alternative," said Adam Brickner, president of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, which runs the rehab facilities for the state. "Local and national research shows that treatment is effective in reducing crime and improving lives. Residential [care] is one of the most beneficial treatments for hard-core drug abusers, but it remains scarce. Waiting times can be up to three months."

"Rest without arrest" is an under-used approach that draws on resources already available. It lowers levels of risk for both the fugitive and citizens. It can help ease prison overcrowding. "Rest without arrest" deserves a closer look.

Timothy A. McCarthy, a state-certified drug counselor and a retired agent from the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation, teaches the principles of drug recovery to inmates at the Howard County Detention Center. His e-mail is worthywarden@comcast.net.

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