City's violent crime demands `revolutionary' change from prison to drug treatment

September 21, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Somebody in an old rowhouse hears gunshots in West Baltimore. They call 911, and the police come to the scene -- Lanvale Street -- and this time, for a change, there are no bodies on the sidewalk.

This time, the bodies are in a Chevy.

It's about 10 p.m. on Sunday -- most of us are home, tuned into Redskins-Cowboys or maybe The Wire on HBO -- and in the 2300 block of West Lanvale, there's a woman slumped at the steering wheel and a man next to her in the passenger's seat. Both dead, shot in the head.

So end the young lives of two more people most of us never heard of -- a woman who celebrated her 30th birthday last month and a man who would have been 33 in November.

Police know of no motive for the killings.

But, as in all city homicides, the first suspicion is drugs -- somebody not paying somebody for heroin, somebody stealing somebody's cocaine, someone sticking up low-level dealers, or something like that.

Of course, in the case of a man and woman found dead in a car, it's natural to suspect something personal, too.

Maybe some day we'll know. Maybe we'll never know.

It's hard to feel diminished by the deaths of strangers in such circumstances -- most of us don't have the time or emotional energy to ponder these losses, week after week, year after year -- but the overnight killings hang heavily on Baltimore and maintain its grim distinction among American cities.

By yesterday afternoon, there were 198 homicides in Baltimore -- exactly the same count as exactly a year ago.

By the time you read this, there might be a couple more.

There aren't as many killings as there were during the out-of-control 1990s, before Martin O'Malley became mayor -- Baltimore had 331 in 1996, for instance -- but the killings remain, with the drugs.

We make progress, but not enough.

Yesterday in Park Heights, Gaudenzia Inc. opened a 120-bed long-term residential treatment facility. That is huge in this city of heroin and cocaine addicts. The more men and women who give up the poison, the fewer on the street, hustling to maintain habits, breaking into houses, getting shot on sidewalks and sometimes in cars.

Treatment works.

But way too many addicts still never get it.

We send them to prison instead of to a clinic. It's one of the great dumb things we continue to do.

This is a result of the war on drugs and the most ambitious period of prison construction in history. We build cells and fill them up, even with the nonviolent drug offenders who need to be in detox and rehab.

The next governor of Maryland should call for a revolutionary shifting of resources into drug treatment and away from incarceration.

I mean, just do it.

Make it big and bold, far beyond what Robert Ehrlich proposed and the myopic General Assembly shot down last year and the year before.

Make it a generational challenge. Declare war on drug addiction with a goal of a 50 percent reduction in Maryland by 2010.

Order whole wings of prisons and county detention centers transformed into clinics. Reopen some of the old buildings at Spring Grove and fill them with men and women who need treatment. There are thousands of them.

Make treatment-on-demand real.

Expand the drug treatment court system throughout the state and make more defendants eligible for it.

We don't need to raise taxes to make this happen.

We just need to change our priorities and spend our money differently.

A report this week from the Justice Policy Institute in Washington says Maryland has made "slow progress" in this shift since 2000. We still spend on incarceration money that would be more effectively spent on treatment.

"For every dollar spent on drug imprisonment," the report says, "the state of Maryland invests an estimated 26 cents in the treatment of drug abusers referred by the criminal justice system."

Ridiculous. And this is particularly true, the report says, in the Baltimore metropolitan area, where the shift in spending is most needed.

"The Baltimore region (Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, and Howard counties) moved in the opposite direction: criminal justice treatment admissions fell by 15 percent while prison admissions grew by 12 percent."

Treatment increased in the city during O'Malley's -- and former city health commissioner Peter Beilenson's-- tenure. But, the report says, Baltimore still sends too many drug offenders to jail.

"Baltimore's drug imprisonment rate was still more than eight times the state average," the report says. "The typical Maryland jurisdiction admitted 10 people to drug treatment for every person serving a prison sentence for a drug offense, while the ratio in Baltimore was eight-to-one."

We need to do a lot better. We need a governor to talk about this with urgency and passion and to turn the whole approach toward drug offenders upside down.

There is a payoff: According to the JPI's report, eight of 12 Maryland jurisdictions that made treatment a priority for drug offenders experienced a crime drop of 10 percent or more since 2000. That means fewer break-ins, fewer robberies, fewer shopliftings.

In Baltimore, increased drug treatment probably has more to do with the city's drop in homicides than anything else. The JPI report suggests we would have been even further along with more treatment and less incarceration. Please, let's fix this.

Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio's The Buzz, with Chip Franklin, and read his blog at www.baltimoresun. com/rodricks.

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