Sobering emotions rule in Drug Court

Sun Staff

Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

-- from "The Summer Day," by Mary Oliver

Everyone knows what's about to happen to Milton Allen. It's a Wednesday morning in June, and Allen, the middle-aged, cocaine-addicted son of a once-prominent Baltimore prosecutor and judge, has just taken a familiar seat at the defendant's table in the city's Drug Treatment Court. He's broken one promise too many, and this time he'll pay.

His attorney, assistant public defender Cindy Mossman, chats quietly with him. His disappointed probation agent, Paul McGowan, slumps in a wooden chair a few feet away. Laura Brokaw, an assistant state's attorney, appears more somber than usual and picks through a stack of yellow files on the prosecutor's table. As the judge assigned to this unique court, Gale Rasin, reads the progress report on Allen, there's no trace of the cheerful countenance she presents to many of the drug addicts who come before her, in various stages of recovery, each week.

On this day, Rasin won't be handing Allen a red, plastic "step pen," a token reward she gives defendants who stay clean for 90 days. She won't be declaring Allen "on the A-team," and asking everyone in the courtroom to applaud him for another good report card.

Milton Allen, 46, is a Drug Court failure, and the frustration is palpable among all parties assembled in Courtroom No. 2 in the District Court building on Wabash Avenue in northwest Baltimore. Allen was a good candidate for Drug Court -- a man with a problem who needed help, not punishment -- but he didn't hold up his end of the deal. So he's about to face the consequences, and no one in the courtroom takes particular satisfaction in this. In fact, there's a kind of sadness and mild angst about the whole thing, the feeling of relatives struggling with a draining problem around a kitchen table.

Drug Court is an unusual -- and unheralded -- place in the realm of criminal justice. There's a family-therapy aspect to the court's proceedings; they are more personal, more intimate than those of traditional courts. The stories are less about crime and justice than about human struggle and redemption. Some leave you despairing for the future of Baltimore. Some give you hope. All cases, especially the losers like Milton Allen's, affirm the depth and formidability of the city's drug problem.

Established in 1994 at both the Circuit Court (for felony cases) and District Court (for misdemeanors), Drug Court is designed to attack Baltimore's horrendous addiction crisis, estimated to have ensnared 40,000 to 60,000 city residents, and thousands more in the metropolitan area. The idea is to offer treatment instead of incarceration for thousands of nonviolent offenders: the steady customers of the heroin and cocaine markets who keep getting arrested, clogging the courts, filling the jails and making Baltimore notorious for its severe rate of drug addiction.

Now in its seventh year, Drug Court might be having more impact on the future of the city than many other government initiatives with higher public profiles. Court officials, as well as researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park, believe Drug Court is making slow but lasting progress, cutting the re-arrest rate among its drug-addicted defendants by as much as 50 percent and getting them the treatment many have never had. More than 700 men and women have "graduated" from Drug Court since 1995 and only 11 percent of them have been convicted of new crimes, according to the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation.

Still, there's such a long way to go in a city the federal Drug Enforcement Administration last summer called the "most heroin-plagued" in the nation.

Spend a few weeks observing the misdemeanor Drug Court on Wabash Avenue, and a profoundly sad and stark picture quickly forms -- a tableaux of long-addicted Baltimore men and women who are poor, undereducated and afflicted with a disease that is in most cases never treated.

"How many children do you have?" Rasin asks Geniece Brennan, a 37-year-old defendant about to enter the Drug Court system.

"Four," Brennan says.

"What are their ages?"

"Twenty, 16, 13 and 11."

"How far did you go in school?"


Her drugs of choice? Heroin and cocaine.

Duration of use: "Seventeen years, off and on."

Cost of her addictions: About $34 a day for heroin, the same for cocaine.

Another candidate for Drug Court is James Doles, 31, slim, soft-spoken and baby-faced. He was arrested a few days before Christmas on North Avenue with 18 vials of cocaine. Facing jail time, he opted for Drug Court.

Drugs of choice: Heroin and cocaine.

Duration of use: Fourteen years for heroin, seven for cocaine.

Cost of addiction: About $100 a day for heroin, $50 a day for cocaine.

Another day, a woman named Gloria Davis, her hair tightly braided and just starting to gray, tells Judge Jamey Weitzman, presiding in Rasin's place, that she dropped out of school in eighth grade and can read and write "a little."

Drugs of choice: Heroin and cocaine.

Duration of use: About 14 years.

Cost of her addiction: Between $80 and $100 a day.

Like so many other defendants in Drug Court, Davis says she has never had treatment. "If you ask for help, you'll get it," Weitzman tells her. "If you don't, you'll go to jail."

Those who choose treatment over jail sign a "contract" with the court and are placed on probation, sometimes for several years. They promise to stay drug-free and undergo treatment dictated by the court -- an intensive residential program for some, an outpatient arrangement for others. Many first go to an acupuncture program to relieve their cravings. Drug Court defendants also must keep frequent appointments with their probation agents and show up for progress conferences with judges.

If they violate the conditions of the contract too often -- going AWOL from a treatment program twice is considered "Drug Court murder"-- they serve the rest of their probationary period in jail.

Milton Allen finds himself in that situation as he stands before Rasin. He's 5 feet 7 and 175 pounds. Aviator-style eyeglasses sit low on his nose above a neatly trimmed mustache. He hasn't bothered to tuck his gray long-sleeve shirt into his trousers. He's come alone into the courtroom, but everyone in Drug Court seems to know about Allen and his family. His name, after all, is the same as his famous father's -- Milton B. Allen, who in 1970 became the first black man to be elected state's attorney of Baltimore, and who served as a judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court. No one mentions him in Drug Court, but no one misses the sad irony in his youngest son's circumstance, either.

"This," Rasin says, "is one of those cases where therapeutic jurisprudence has exhausted its possibilities."

She speaks there of the legal concept at the foundation of Drug Court, the idea that all the usual players -- judges, lawyers, probation agents -- unite into a social force that can work, within constitutional boundaries, toward the common goal of breaking a defendant's addictions. Defense attorneys, usually assistant public defenders like Mossman, speak for their clients and advise them of their rights, but they do not press every adversarial point. Same with prosecutors. Consensus seems to be the goal, with the judge making the final decision about what's best for a defendant.

But the Milton Allen case challenges the Drug Court ideal.

His defender, his probation agent and the prosecutor all agree he should go to jail for blowing the numerous opportunities he's been given to break his addiction. But Mossman pleads for six months, Brokaw suggests a year, and McGowan recommends eight months. No one is pleased that the case is ending this way.

"We'd much rather applaud the people sitting at that table," Rasin tells Allen, "than to see them go to jail."

But on this day she has little choice.

There are many days when there's plenty of applause in Drug Court, when even the blue-blazered bailiffs put their hands together for defendants making strides in recovery.

The report on a defendant named George Brunson, for instance, says he's obtained a high school equivalency certificate during his Drug Court probation. He's also joined a group called Young Fathers and shown up consistently for drug counseling and testing at an outpatient treatment center. "You continue to be a real star on the A-team," Rasin tells him.

Phyllis Diggs also has a perfect report: Resident of a faith-based treatment program called Recovery King II, consistently testing negative for drugs, keeping a part-time job at Camden Yards. She gets praise from the judge and applause from the courtroom gallery.

Yvonne McDonald has a string of negative tests for drugs, too. "I'm proud of her," McGowan says.

On the day of his progress conference with Rasin, Lewis Godsey Jr. wears a silky blue Fubu shirt, bright to match his disposition. Things are going well. He's finally getting treatment for a 15-year-old, $100-a-day habit. He's attending barber school. He's tested clean and made all his probation appointments.

"You inspire me every time," Rasin tells Godsey. "You got into this program and you did not look back. You made recovery a priority in your life. . . .

"Let's congratulate Mr. Godsey on being a real star," says Rasin, and the courtroom crackles with applause.

But then there are those moments when the reports are less than perfect -- when defendants seem to be slipping -- when instead of hopeful, things in Drug Court get gnarly, frustrating and exhausting, where all seems pointless.

One day, with Rasin presiding, a woman named Kim Tourain arrives for her last progress conference. A heroin and cocaine addict, she has been in the Drug Court system for months and logged some impressive periods of abstinence. But she's relapsed, with only two days left on her Drug Court contract.

"Everyone here is very concerned about you," Rasin says grimly. "You're leaving Drug Court. The question is: To what future? . . . If you keep using, you're going to get caught again. You're going to get arrested and you're not going to get this opportunity again. You're going to jail."

Rasin could jail Tourain, but only for two days. Instead, she admonishes her to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings every day, to find a sponsor, to get in a program.

"All right, you're released from Drug Court," Rasin says, shaking her head. "You're excused."

Tourain, still silent, leaves the courtroom.

To what future?

Thousands of Baltimoreans like her are willing to pay millions of dollars a year to drug dealers to maintain their habits. Since the 1980s, the answer to all this seemed to be arrests and incarceration of users. But once they served their time, most drug offenders headed back to the same streets and the same addictions.

There was nothing "therapeutic" about that system.

However, the one Weitzman and other Baltimore court and probation officials established in 1994 was -- and not only in theory, but, it turns out, in practice.

A recent study by the University of Maryland's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice concluded that significantly fewer Drug Court defendants were arrested for new offenses during a 12-month period in 1997 and 1998 than their nonviolent, addicted peers who didn't go the Drug Court route. The report estimated that the re-arrest rate for drug addicts who rejected Drug Court is three times that of those who went for the deal.

"If you look only at the number who graduate, you get a negative picture," says Weitzman, a former prosecutor who worked on Drug Court at its inception and remains its leading advocate on the bench. "There's more to it. Even if they don't finish, you've kept someone off drugs for five or six months."

And, she says, the larger, incalculable savings from breaking any addict's cycle for any period of time must be considered. "You have to factor in all the costs associated with addictions," Weitzman says. "The cost of putting people in jail, the neonatal costs of a drug-addicted baby, the social cost of raising a drug-addicted child. . . ."

So when a female defendant manages to stay in recovery long enough to avoid passing her addiction along to her baby -- that's cause for applause and tears in the courtroom.

And Weitzman remembers, from graduation ceremonies, emotional stories of recovering addicts -- the man whose mother gave him the key to her house for the first time in 10 years, the woman whose mother invited her to Easter dinner for the first time in 15, the graduate who now runs a successful construction business and puts other Drug Court defendants to work.

Milton Allen folds his hands against his forehead as, across the small courtroom, Rasin and Brokaw, the prosecutor, retrace the history of his case. Originally given probation before judgment in May 1998 on a drug-possession charge, he violated his probation 18 months later by getting arrested again. Rather than go to jail, he entered the Drug Court system in December 1999. Since then, he'd managed to keep a job in a music recording studio and to get help -- acupuncture to relieve his immediate cravings in a facility at the city jail, stints in two treatment programs, Right Turn of Maryland and Recovery King II. Right Turn had expelled Allen once during his probation. On June 12, the treatment center expelled him again because he tested positive for cocaine.

"This is really a waste," says state's attorney Brokaw. "Mr. Allen is an intelligent person. If he'd put the effort he'd put into his job into treatment -- into making his treatment his job . . . I believe he had the ability to do that, but . . ."

"He's an addict. He's one of the people who failed," public defender Mossman says sadly. "His family is fed up with him. He's one of our failures. There's nothing more we can do; this is the end of the road for him. He knows he has to deal with his addiction problem or else it's going to kill him."

Mossman asks Allen if he wishes to speak. He clears his throat and looks at Rasin.

"I deeply regret my actions, your honor," he says, his voice clear. "It seems like when things are going well, that's when things go bad. The lessons of recovery have not been lost. I know I have character defects I have to work on. I have to work on humility and acceptance. The obsessive nature of the disease got to me and I didn't use the tools available to me. . . . I'm grateful for the experience of Drug Court."

He thanks his family for its support, then sits down.

Rasin finishes writing a note, then looks up at Allen. By now, she's heard many stories from addicts. She's handed out pens to those who have stayed clean. She's led applause for dozens of men and women who clawed their way through recovery. She likes her job so much she's asked to stay on through the year before giving way to another judge. But, for all the good things that have happened in this unique court, no day passes without disappointment. Milton Allen is today's.

"Drug Court didn't fail you," she tells him. "You just haven't gotten to the point where you can stay focused for a long enough period of time to avoid bringing these consequences down on you "

Therapeutic jurisprudence, successful for so many others over the last seven years, has run its course with regard to Milton Allen.

"You know," Rasin says, "you're just going to go to jail and you're just going to sit there. You're not going to work-release. What you need to do is sit and contemplate what it is in you -- what character traits -- that make you persist. Denial? Manipulation? Rationalization?

"It's really with great frustration on everyone's part that we come to this day," she says, noting that Allen had many things -- family support, a job, a treatment regimen -- that could have changed his life.

But even as she faces this failure of a Drug Court defendant, Rasin wants to send him a message, itself an act of hope.

"I'm going to give you something to read," Rasin says, holding up a single sheet of paper. "It's one of my favorite poems. It's called, 'The Summer Day,' by Mary Oliver. Try to answer the question in the last two lines: 'Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?' "

The sentence is eight months in jail.

A uniformed officer steps behind Allen to put him in handcuffs. Allen turns slightly at the familiar ratchet sound of the cuffs and places his hands behind his back.

Rasin hands the poem to a bailiff. "Would you give this to Mr. Allen, please?" she says.

But Allen's hands are no longer free to accept it, so the bailiff folds the poem in half and places it instead in the pocket of his shirt.

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