Pubdate: Thu, 06 Mar 2008
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2008 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Dan Rodricks


What case doesn't have to do with drugs?" a District Court judge said,
suggesting that all crimes alleged on his daily docket are in some way
related to heroin or cocaine addiction. "So much money is wasted
because it's not [politically correct] to advocate for drug treatment
instead of prison time," said another jurist. "Politicians want to
look tough. But almost everyone we see needs treatment - almost every
prostitution, possession and trespassing case."

No one in the room dismissed either statement as exaggeration.

Everyone agreed: Drug addicts need treatment, not incarceration.

Everyone agreed: The system we have now fails big time.

"They commit crimes over and over again because they haven't received
treatment," another judge said of the daily parade of defendants.
"Sometimes they can't make it to court without using. They come to
court high all the time."

The setting was conducive to judicial candor - a couple of dozen
Baltimore judges assembled for a focus group.

Focus groups are usually used to assess the personalities of
television news anchors or the crunch and flavor of breakfast cereals.
Here was focus on criminal justice in Maryland's biggest and most
drug-infested city, and the participants were judges of the District
Court of Maryland and the Circuit Court of Baltimore, men and women
not otherwise inclined to publicly indict the system in which they

Advocates for more treatment convened the study: Baltimore Substance
Abuse Systems, which oversees treatment in the city, and the Justice
Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that has studied
Maryland's criminal justice system and concluded that it has been
screwy for years: We spend at most 26 cents on drug treatment for
every dollar spent on incarceration.

Thousands of low-level drug dealers and users, many of them with
nonviolent criminal records, are trapped in a cycle of release,
relapse and recidivism. No wonder our prison population has tripled
since 1980. No wonder that, across the country, one in every 100
adults is incarcerated. We're the world's leading jailer because we
treat drug addiction as a crime and not as a disease.

The JPI and BSAS have agendas, but they wanted to know whether judges,
fresh from the front lines, agreed that jailing drug defendants
amounts to the systemic insanity that anyone with a lick of common
sense can see.

In so many words, the judges agreed.

"As a matter of desperation, you send people to the [Division of
Correction] knowing that they won't get treatment there and knowing
that when they're released you start all over," said a Circuit Court
judge. (Judges quoted in the JPI study were not identified.)

"When," asked a District Court judge, "is society and our government
at all levels going to decide that a drug problem is a health care
issue and not a criminal justice issue, and that the criminal justice
community cannot solve this problem?"

Baltimore has had effective drug-treatment courts at the district and
circuit levels for several years. But the conditions for those courts
limit the number of defendants referred to them to a few hundred at
any given time.

Judges can make "8/505/8-507" commitments, meaning residential
treatment under Maryland's Health General Articles 8-505 and 8-507.
They also have discretion to refer certain nonviolent drug addicts to
a state-run, federally funded program called the Felony Diversion Initiative.

But these options are so limited that thousands of other defendants go
through conventional court routines. The judges who sit in these
courts, day after eye-glazing day, have no confidence that either
incarceration or drug treatment as a condition of probation will do
any good. Parole and probation agents are overwhelmed with cases.

"Even people using 8/505-8/507 and the drug courts are the minutiae
compared to the rest of us who are using Parole and Probation, giving
a suspended sentence and putting the magic words, 'drug treatment' and
'random urinalysis' on the order," a District Court judge said. "We're
depending on Parole and Probation to find treatment, and they're not.
Defendants are not getting the treatment they need - people addicted
five, 10, 20 or 30 years. We're talking about the general population
. falling through a huge sieve."

What to do?

The JPI report makes these suggestions, based on the judicial focus

* Assess defendants' drug treatment needs on the spot, in the
courthouses, and at central booking.

* Judges want to be able to immediately match defendants with
treatment slots, but they don't know what, if anything, is available.
This information needs to be shared with the courts. "Like a parking
lot with the green signs that show how many spaces are available on
each floor," one judge suggested. "We should know."

* Expand the use of methadone among jail detainees and people on
waiting lists for treatment.

* Expand the drug-treatment court programs and the Felony Diversion

* Hire more public defenders, social workers and staff to provide more
individualized service to defendants who need treatment.

* Raise the state tax on alcoholic beverages for the first time since
1972 and put the money into drug treatment.

* Reform the state's overly harsh mandatory minimums for low-level,
nonviolent drug users, give judges more discretion in sentencing,
reduce the prison population (by about 5,000 eventually) and use the
savings -- about $26,000 per inmate per year - to fund more drug treatment.

Such a reform was vetoed by the governor last year, with Martin
O'Malley saying, "Drug-dealing is a violent crime." A similar
measure, the Smart on Crime Act, is coming through the legislature
again. It's not known whether the wife of our law-and-order governor
took part in the focus group survey, but Katie O'Malley is a District
Court judge; she might suggest that her husband heed her colleagues'
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