'Drug court' backed as way to help addicts, cut crime

Imagine a courtroom in which every defendant is a drug addict who has committed a non-violent crime to support a habit. None will get jail time -- unless the addict strays from the drug treatment the judge will order.

This is a courtroom of second chances. It's "drug court."


Right now, drug court is only a concept in Baltimore. But officials hope to make it a reality here and point to the success of innovative drug courts in Miami and Chicago. Those cities have diverted non-violent offenders from jail by getting treatment for them, instead.

David W. Skeen of the Baltimore City Bar Association said the proposal was launched last month and is being spearheaded by a committee led by Baltimore lawyer George L. Russell Jr.


Mr. Skeen said treatment is far less expensive than is jail. He said it costs $3,000 a year to provide treatment, parole and probation for drug-addicted offenders. It costs $22,000 to keep someone locked up for a year, he said.

He said officials could drop criminal charges against addicted nonviolent offenders upon successful completion of a one-year treatment program. The judge of the drug court could reinstate charges, however, if the offender repeatedly strayed from treatment, he said.

"It puts in the hands of the judge a way to force addicts into treatment, which is what they really need," said Mr. Skeen, a past president of the city bar.

The idea is endorsed by Baltimore Circuit Court Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms and Maryland Public Defender Stephen H. Harris.

Mr. Simms estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 people in Baltimore's criminal justice system need drug treatment.

Supporters of drug court want to shift the emphasis of the city's drug policy from law enforcement to treatment. The goal is to prevent drug users who do not have a violent criminal history from getting wrapped up in the court system while keeping them off drugs and saving taxpayers' money.

"People who come into the drug court would sign a contract saying they will enter a court-related treatment program," Judge Kaplan said during a symposium this week at the Baltimore Convention Center. "They would not go through the criminal-justice process."

The symposium was sponsored by Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc, the Baltimore City Partnership for Drug-Free Neighborhoods and the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission to explore new approaches to the city's substance-abuse problems.


Judge Kaplan noted that Baltimore Circuit Court already has designated three courtrooms that specialize in drug cases. The designation is intended to speed up narcotics possession and distribution cases. The judges impose sentences ranging from probation to long jail terms, he said.

To establish a drug court in Baltimore, the city would have to obtain federal money for treatment programs, Judge Kaplan said. He said no additional money would be needed for the court expenses because officials would utilize current courtrooms and judges.

Jo DeWeese, executive director of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, warned proponents that the concept depends on adequate money for treatment. Currently, she said, the city's programs lack funds and all treatment slots in Baltimore are filled.

"The cost-benefit [ratio] favors treatment over incarceration, but we don't have the money and I don't know where we're going to get the money," she said, adding that it would cost $2,000 to provide a year of solid outpatient therapy to each offender.

"If you put somebody in treatment, it costs less -- far less -- and you have a much better outcome," Ms. DeWeese said. "It seems like a win-win situation, but the public seems to believe it's better to send someone to jail rather than help them."

Baltimore officials say they are attracted by the central idea of getting help for addicted offenders, but they are haggling over how a drug court should function. Mr. Simms said he was not convinced that charges against offenders should be dropped altogether.


"I'm not sure we can play psychoanalyst," the city's top prosecutor said. "We can't take the position of being experts and not hold people accountable. But the objective is to offer people treatment up front."