Divert more drug users

The Baltimore Sun

Crime and drugs go hand-in-hand in Baltimore, and both problems are exacerbated by the inability of some city judges to properly evaluate a defendant's drug problem and the lack of sufficient treatment options, particularly for those who commit crimes to support their habit.

That reality is reinforced by local judges who vented their frustration about how the criminal justice system handles low-level, nonviolent drug offenders in a new study by a Washington-based think tank. Fixing the problem could save lives.

The nearly two dozen district and circuit judges who sat down with researchers from the Justice Policy Institute described a revolving-door system in which heroin and cocaine users are often involved in a cycle of catch, jail and release - without getting treatment that would help them break it.

Some sensible initiatives now in place to keep Baltimore drug users out of prison include drug court, a felony diversion program and a special discretionary program that allows judges to send defendants directly into treatment.

One catch is that there simply are not enough treatment programs. Maryland spends no more than 26 cents on treating Baltimore's drug defendants for every dollar spent locking them up. That's an imbalance that the judges should press Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly to correct.

Many of the judges sensibly conclude that addiction is a problem better dealt with through the public health system. But in the meantime, reforms should be adopted that would make a journey through the criminal justice system less futile.

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