Drug court: How about more of a good thing?

COLUMN

September 28, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Icalled the other day for an expanded attack on the drug addiction that fuels the drug trade that fuels the violence that fuels the decline - or at least delays the progress - of the quality of life in Baltimore. It's a burden on the entire metropolitan area, on the whole state.

Drug addiction has been placed at the root of 80 percent of crime. It's the reason our prisons are filled. It's why we have neighborhood crime patrols, why our courts are crazy-busy. In many cases, drug addiction is at the root of family dysfunction, and family dysfunction - compounded by poverty, ignorance, unemployment - is at the root of the cycle of failure of children and schools.

If the two candidates for governor are concerned about the kids in Baltimore's schools, they should be concerned about the drug addiction that marks the families and neighborhoods they come from.

I can tie Baltimore's long-standing problem with heroin and cocaine addiction to a wide array of social and cultural problems, even our self-image as a metropolitan area.

That's why the next governor needs to make Maryland's war on drugs a war on drug addiction. We need to choose treatment over incarceration in every possible case - even in the case of felons - and we need to expand and fund treatment opportunities and judicial oversight.

Stop sending drug addicts to jail.

Build a hospital for them instead.

If we want to take the losers who continue to sell drugs off the street corners, then take away their customers.

Arrest them for possession of heroin or cocaine, but send them to a clinic, not a jail cell.

Offer treatment on demand to anyone who wants it at any time. (Right now, anyone who wants it at any time might not get it; in Baltimore, we don't even keep an official waiting list of people who want treatment. We make them keep calling a hot line until a treatment slot opens.)

I'm preaching, pretty much, to the choir.

Opinion polls show nearly 70 percent of Americans think drug addiction should be treated, not punished.

As for the other 30 percent - they either believe drug addiction is a moral failing that should be condemned, or they resent government subsidizing therapy for criminals.

Every now and then, I get a letter from the unconvinced.

"You have taken on a task of pleading [for] Baltimoreans to help drug addicts and criminals," one of the skeptics wrote the other day. "But you'd turn more heads if you provided proof that drug treatment works to help a critical mass of people."

I can help there, though I haven't the space to note the many studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of treatment. Most studies that I've read conclude that people who are addicted to heroin and/or cocaine are far more likely to relapse without treatment - and return to a life of crime to support their habits - than if they get it. And they are far more likely to get it if drug treatment is available and affordable.

Here's what the White House Office of Drug Control Policy concludes:

"Drug treatment reduces drug use by 40 to 60 percent and significantly decreases criminal activity during and after treatment. Research shows that drug addiction treatment reduces the risk of HIV infection and that interventions to prevent HIV are much less costly than treating HIV-related illnesses. Drug injectors who do not enter treatment are up to six times more likely to become infected with HIV than injectors who enter and remain in treatment."

Something else to consider: Maryland's drug treatment courts. They exist in all but three counties now. They are at the District Court level and, in some counties, at the Circuit Court level. They offer an alternative to incarceration for frequent fliers through the Maryland court system, the men and women who go months and years hooked on heroin and cocaine, contributing nothing to their families or their communities - and committing crimes (including selling drugs) to keep the monster fed.

Drug treatment courts make so much sense you almost can't believe we invented them.

A company from Oregon examined the effectiveness of two of them - the one in Anne Arundel County and the one in Baltimore City - and this is what researchers concluded:

In Anne Arundel County, more than 54 percent of those who entered drug court finished treatment and fulfilled all of their probationary obligations. Compared, over a four-year period, with a similar group that didn't get treatment - same age, gender, race and criminal background - drug court graduates were rearrested 18 percent fewer times for property crimes and 73 percent fewer times for crimes of violence.

In Baltimore, the results were even more impressive.

Looking at more than 750 addicts who went through drug treatment courts at District and Circuit Court levels, researchers found a three-year recidivism rate that was 31 percent lower than that for addicts who were not treated. The rearrest rate for the group that went through the drug treatment program at the Circuit Court level was 44 percent lower than the group as a whole. Drug arrests in the Circuit Court sample fell by 62 percent, and arrests for violent crime by 48 percent.

I say we're doing a good thing here. I say we need to do more of a good thing.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks on 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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