Looking To City For Drug Ideas

U.s. Narcotics Chief Focuses On Baltimore Drug Treatment Court

July 21, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Barack Obama's newly appointed drug czar is looking to Baltimore to help set the nation's strategy, focusing on the city's 15-year-old drug treatment court, which emphasizes therapy over incarceration.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, met with legislators and a drug court judge Monday to discuss the program and collaborative efforts between city, state and federal agencies. It was Kerlikowske's third visit to the city since his May swearing-in.

Released prisoners "almost invariably go back to the neighborhood from whence they came," he said after the briefing during a news conference held in the lobby of the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center. Without treatment, "all we're doing is recycling people throughout the system. It makes no sense."

The words underscore early suggestions that the Obama administration will focus on drugs as a public health issue, rather than just a law enforcement problem. And in Baltimore, drug addiction and the resulting crime "is the most significant public health crisis" there is, said Greg Warren, president of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., which sets the city's drug strategy.

Each year, the prison system returns 9,000 convicts to Baltimore streets, and, for most of them, to the drug abuse that led them to incarceration in the first place. Most of the city's criminal activity is drug-related, with 80 percent of those arrested here - four out of five people - failing their initial drug tests.

The first drug treatment court was developed in Florida in 1989, as crack cocaine use was labeled an epidemic and the "war on drugs" ratcheted up arrests. The idea was to lessen the burden on courts and jails by trying treatment before imprisonment.

The courts quickly grew in popularity, and today, there are more than 1,000 of them across the country, according to a 2005 University of Maryland report that studied the effects of Baltimore's version, which was created in 1994 in response to a city Bar Association claim that 85 percent of Baltimore crimes were addiction-driven.

In many ways, it resembles other such federally funded programs throughout the country. Participants must live in the city and be at least 18, and they can't have violent offense convictions on their records. They're also supervised and regularly drug-tested during their treatment.

But Baltimore's intensive probation supervision, and the significant participation of the Division of Parole and Probation, are atypical, the university report said.

According to statistics presented yesterday by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who called for the gathering, Baltimore's drug treatment court participants are more than three times as likely as other convicts to be employed after the program, and they're a third as likely to use drugs during treatment.

"We want Baltimore to be a model," Cummings said during the conference, which was also attended by Mayor Sheila Dixon and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin.

In an interview afterward, Cummings stressed the need for more resources and the role the federal government has in providing them. That's the main reason he wanted Kerlikowske to become familiar with Baltimore's system.

"You want the federal government to be sensitive to things that are working," Cummings said. That ensures that "the city has a better chance at getting the resources it needs."

Kerlikowske said he got the message and "absolutely" plans to incorporate Baltimore's efforts into the country's policy.

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