A few months from now, hand-picked felons might be offered this choice by an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge: Go to prison for several years or complete drug treatment while on an extremely short leash of probation.
Officials hope to create a drug court this fall for nonviolent felons, people who commit crimes such as check fraud fueled by the need to support a drug addiction.
It would blend long-term treatment in the county with strict court monitoring, immediate rewards for staying out of trouble and punishment for failing to do so.
Targeting people convicted of nonviolent felonies, it would be the third drug court in the county. There is a program for adults accused of less serious crimes in District Court and one for juveniles.
Details of the program, which was six months in the planning, have yet to be worked out. Officials expect to learn in coming weeks whether they will receive two grants to pay for it, a small one from the state for start-up and $450,000 over three years from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Plans call for finding about 50 drug users who are willing to cooperate in a year or more of treatment under close court supervision to avoid lengthy incarceration.
Participants could expect to see a lot of Judge Michael E. Loney, the judge in charge of the project. He says the drug court envisioned would have a "tough love approach."
Tests to determine whether defendants are staying drug-free might be conducted as often as three times a week, with results reported quickly. Participants would meet regularly with their probation agents.
Loney, who might see defendants as frequently as twice a month, would make decisions on the spot, assessing a weekend in jail, perhaps, to grab the attention of a participant who was using drugs or allowing a later curfew for a defendant who was progressing.
Job training might be part of an individually tailored program.
Hanging over the participant's head would be the knowledge that flunking out could mean serving a long prison term.
"We have a tremendous opportunity to help a lot of people get well," Loney said.
Doing so could help other people, too, among them drug users' family members and their neighbors.
Long term, it could also help communities that would have fewer crime victims because recidivism was reduced, he said. About 80 percent of crime locally is tied to drug use.
Collaborators on the plan include people who would help select participants, arrange drug treatment and monitor the participants, including prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation agents and health workers, said John D. Fullmer, coordinator for the three-year-old Juvenile Drug Court in the Circuit Court.
Once rare, drug courts are gaining popularity as an alternative to prison and to probation. Its drawback is thatit deals with a small percentage of people who need help.
Nationally, about 1,200 drug courts are in operation, according to the National Drug Court Institute.
The first one in the nation started in 1989, and Baltimore City District Court had the first in Maryland in 1994.
Two and half years ago, Maryland had nine drug courts; today it has 22, with a dozen more being planned, said Gray Barton, executive director of the Drug Treatment Court Commission of Maryland.
The juvenile drug court has worked with about 70 offenders, nearly half of whom are currently in the program, Fullmer said. Of the rest, about one-third of the teenagers graduated. Others moved, some completed as much of the program as they could but did not graduate, and a few were sentenced.
A study of Anne Arundel's drug court in District Court that was released last year found that it had a graduation rate of 54.7 percent, 6.7 percentage points higher than the national average.
Over four years, its participants were rearrested 18.8 percent fewer times for property crimes and 73.7 percent fewer times for crimes against people.
The study, conducted by NPC Research Inc. of Portland, Ore., pointed to drug courts as a cost-effective investment because with fewer repeat offenders, there were fewer victims and lower community costs, and former drug users got jobs.
Being held accountable quickly by a judge "is a reason why it is more successful," Barton said.
With insufficient drug treatment in jails and prisons, drug courts are a viable alternative for people who meet the criteria, said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.
He hopes the participants have long sentences hanging over their heads as encouragement to get and stay clean, he said.
Completing a drug court program can be hard, but for people who are "on the way to state prison, maybe this is an opportunity for them to avoid that disaster," said Don Kumer, probation and parole supervisor for the county.