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Maryland lawmakers aim to cut wait times for inmate drug treatment

Lakeith Lewis was two years into a 10-year prison sentence when a judge reviewing the 26-year-old's case determined he was eligible for intensive drug treatment.

But Lewis, who had been convicted of possessing drugs with intent to distribute, spent last March to October "just sitting around" in a Hagerstown prison waiting for a slot to open in a state-funded treatment program. Now nearing the end of six months of residential treatment in Baltimore, he calls the extra time he spent behind bars a "waste of money."

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Many judges, prosecutors and others agree. "It costs about half as much to put that individual in a treatment bed," said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is supporting legislation to cut wait times in a program that lets judges send criminal offenders to treatment.

The legislation would require the state to drastically reduce the wait for such inmates, which averages 167 days and can reach a year and a half. Supporters also hope to make probation and treatment — not jail — the standard response to most drug possession charges.

It's part of a broader strategy known as justice reinvestment, which seeks to reduce prison populations and channel the savings into more effective crime-fighting programs. The effort is part of a sweeping bill that emerged from deliberations of Maryland's Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council last year.

Zirkin, who served on the council, said reducing wait times and expanding the judicial referral program — which placed 1,533 addicts in 2012-2014 — are perhaps the most significant reforms in the legislation. It sets a limit of 30 days between assessment and placement.

An influential General Assembly panel is recommending a dramatic reduction in jail sentences for drug offenses — part of a plan to imprison thousands fewer people and use the savings to help others stay out of jail.

"The focus of all of this has been to drastically increase investment in drug and mental health treatment," Zirkin said. "It is clearly critical to do this in order to get better outcomes in public safety, to reduce crime, to create fewer victims."

In addition to the drug treatment proposal, the legislation includes significant reforms to Maryland's criminal justice system. It would reduce sentences for some drug crimes and change the way Maryland decides when to release felons and how to supervise them once they are free. In a General Assembly session otherwise marked by political strife, the effort to overhaul Maryland's criminal justice strategy enjoys bipartisan support.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which Zirkin chairs, will hold a hearing on the legislation Wednesday. The House of Delegates Judiciary Committee will consider it Friday.

Under current law, a judge can order the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to evaluate an offender's addiction and to recommend a level of treatment. The judge can then enter what is known as an 8-507 order and send the defendant to residential treatment. The law calls for "prompt" placement after an assessment and judge's order, but often nothing happens for months. Under the program, patients who successfully complete treatment are released, usually with some supervision.

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Some treatment specialists say there are plenty of beds available — but not enough state money to pay for offenders' treatment. In a strongly worded letter to legislative leaders last month, the Administrative Office of the Courts said that "there is no viable public policy rationale that can justify delay and further unnecessary incarceration."

In many cases, Zirkin said, the opportunity to get addicts into treatment when they are most receptive is lost.

Democrats and Republicans in Annapolis are taking a hard look at Maryland's approach to crime and punishment.

Greg Warren, regional director of the Gaudenzia substance abuse program where Lewis is being treated, agreed. He said an arrest can have a powerful "motivational effect" to push an addict toward recovery. But when treatment is delayed for months, addicts can lose their commitment to getting clean.

"They just want to get out" of jail, he said.

Drugs are widely available in prison, Lewis and other former inmates said, making temptation an ever-present problem.

Recovering addicts at the Gaudenzia facility in Northwest Baltimore pointed out that inmates waiting for treatment can lose their spot in line if written up for an infraction of prison rules — whether a behavioral outburst or a positive drug test. That, they said, makes them a target of both envious fellow inmates and correctional officers.

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"You don't necessarily got to be looking for trouble," said Stephen Mercer, 53, of Park Heights. "It comes to you, even with the guards."

Mercer said he spent four months avoiding interactions with others in Baltimore detention facilities while waiting for treatment.

"You seclude yourself. You become a loner," he said.

Claudia McLain, 41, served about 13 years of a 20-year term for an armed robbery she committed to feed a heroin habit before she was given a shot at the 8-507 program. But between a stalled evaluation process and a wait for a bed, it took her about a year to get into treatment at Gaudenzia.

Claudia McLain, 41, is in a drug treatment program at one of the Gaudenzia drug treatment facilities.
Claudia McLain, 41, is in a drug treatment program at one of the Gaudenzia drug treatment facilities.(Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

The wait, she said, was a setback to her recovery. "Mentally, you're on overload, like a breakdown," she said.

The delays are galling to the judges who sign the treatment orders.

District Judge George M. Lipman, who presides over Baltimore's mental health court, said he sees many cases where addicts face such a long wait for treatment that they choose to just serve the time. In some cases, he said, they come out only to die of overdoses.

"Certainly I've seen it — tragically," Lipman said. "It's very frustrating that you don't have all the resources you need to get the best outcomes."

Lipman said the 8-507 program would be effective if the delays could be eliminated. But he said some of his colleagues have lost faith.

"Absolutely, some judges have thrown up their hands," he said. "It is being used less than it should be by judges throughout the state."

Not all programs are reporting a backlog. Recovery Network in Baltimore has beds and funding but has seen referrals slack off recently. Clinical director Bryce Hudak said he's "clueless" as to why that's happened. But Hudak said treatment is clearly effective. His program, which offers residential programs of six to 12 months, has a 58 percent success rate after six months of after-care, he said.

Just how aggressive the state should be in setting a timeline for treatment is one of the details lawmakers must still work out.

As introduced, the bill would require that addicts be placed in a drug treatment program within 30 days of assessment. If they aren't, state health officials could be forced to explain why in court. Zirkin said he'd like to cut the target to seven to 14 days.

Sean Augustus, admissions director at Recovery Network, said it would sometimes be a challenge for programs to place someone in 30 days.

"There are times in the year when 30 days sounds great and times in the year where 30 days seems overly aggressive," he said.

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The justice reinvestment legislation will also face scrutiny from local governments over a provision requiring them to pick up some of the costs of treatment for offenders who are diverted from local detention centers.

Natasha Mehu, a policy analyst for the Maryland Association of Counties, said her group agrees with the overall reinvestment strategy. But she said local governments are concerned that burdens will be shifted before funds from jail savings are available.

"In the immediate future it would be a concern of ours to make sure there isn't a gap there," she said. "We'll certainly be at the table."

The bill does not allocate new funding but adopts a policy prodding the governor to put sufficient money in his budget.

Christopher Shank, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Larry Hogan and chairman of the reinvestment council, said the administration realizes that increasing funding will be very important.

He said the goal of justice reinvestment is to save money on incarceration that can then be spent on crime prevention, but he acknowledged that funding might be needed to "kick start" the program in the near term.

"We're certainly willing to explore a number of options," Shank said. "It's going to take a partnership between the judiciary, the legislative branch and the executive branch."

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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