Drug court starts to grow

First graduation marks milestone as program seeks to admit more

May 13, 2007|By Dan Lamothe | Dan Lamothe,Sun Reporter

Seventeen months ago, Jennifer R. Hart was sitting in a jail cell, a heroin addict whose downward spiral began in earnest when she worked late nights in a Baltimore restaurant surrounded by drugs and alcohol.

Her drug use began with alcohol and marijuana, she said. Before it was over, she had developed a dependency on the potent painkiller OxyContin, which lured her to heroin.

"The physical addiction to heroin is the worst pain I've ever felt," she said. "I didn't really know what it was when I first tried it, and it was cheaper than OxyContin."

Tomorrow, the 29-year-old Glen Burnie native will get a fresh start when she becomes one of the first five graduates of Anne Arundel Circuit Court's drug court.

The ceremony at the Annapolis courthouse will be a milestone for the program, which oversaw just a handful of drug offenders when it launched in December 2005 but could soon keep tabs on as many as 50.

Like its peers across the country, the Anne Arundel drug court works on the basis that some convicted felons can be led back to a normal life with an approach that includes regular drug tests and court appearances, a required full-time job, counseling and other treatment.

The drug court, led by Circuit Judge Michael E. Loney, also intervenes quickly when its members relapse, slapping them with court sanctions while offering immediate intervention.

"We're monitoring them and supervising them much more closely than a probationary agency would," Loney said. "If they're not doing well ... we can take action to get them back on the right track early."

Each person's time in the program is determined on a case-by-case basis. Hart and its organizers said the court requires sincere dedication from the drug offenders in it.

"I keep very very close tabs on them," said Michelle Klassen, a clinical case manager who counsels those in the program. "I talk to their employers, their friends, their families ... whatever it takes to keep them straight. It's about them being accountable for their behavior."

In Hart's case, that meant breaking years of destructive behavior. Years of drinking and doing drugs caught up with her in 2004, when county police arrested her for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

Hart said her heroin addiction led to a failed drug test required as a part of her parole. She was placed in the Anne Arundel County Detention Center in November 2005, according to court records.

Since entering the drug court program, Hart said she relapsed with heroin once in January - a reality that drug court officials said they allow for in some cases but not without discipline. She was placed in a halfway house in Bethesda and has since been hired as a cashier at a Giant Foods supermarket. She said she feared another job at a restaurant would lead to old temptations.

Maintaining sobriety is "something you have to put a great deal of effort into, because they monitor you very closely," she said. "You have to want to stay clean."

John Fullmer, the drug court's administrator, said Hart and her fellow graduates have shown that they are seeking to remain sober by attending meetings of 12-step programs, maintaining jobs and keeping up apartments.

Fullmer said the drug court has about 20 more offenders in it under supervision, and he anticipates it doubling in size to about 50 in July, when the court hopes to receive additional state funding to hire another clinical case manager.

"It makes sense fiscally to get these people clean and sober and get them out of the detention centers, where they're just being warehoused," he said.

The drug court also has many supporters, including county government, law enforcement officials and the public defender's office, which also oversee drug courts in Anne Arundel County focused on juveniles and lower-level drug offenders in District Court.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said the graduation ceremony will be an important step for the Circuit Court program.

"We worked hard to get [drug courts] in this county," he said. " ... It takes some time and resources to run them, but they're well worth it."

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