Judges See Failure In Fate Of Drug Cases
By Dan Rodricks
What case doesn't have to do with drugs?" a District Court judge said, suggesting that all crimes alleged on his daily docket are in some way related to heroin or cocaine addiction. "So much money is wasted because it's not [politically correct] to advocate for drug treatment instead of prison time," said another jurist. "Politicians want to look tough. But almost everyone we see needs treatment -- almost every prostitution, possession and trespassing case."
No one in the room dismissed either statement as exaggeration.
Everyone agreed: Drug addicts need treatment, not incarceration.
Everyone agreed: The system we have now fails big time.
"They commit crimes over and over again because they haven't received treatment," another judge said of the daily parade of defendants. "Sometimes they can't make it to court without using. They come to court high all the time."
The setting was conducive to judicial candor -- a couple of dozen Baltimore judges assembled for a focus group.
Focus groups are usually used to assess the personalities of television news anchors or the crunch and flavor of breakfast cereals. Here was focus on criminal justice in Maryland's biggest and most drug-infested city, and the participants were judges of the District Court of Maryland and the Circuit Court of Baltimore, men and women not otherwise inclined to publicly indict the system in which they serve.
Advocates for more treatment convened the study: Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, which oversees treatment in the city, and the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that has studied Maryland's criminal justice system and concluded that it has been screwy for years: We spend at most 26 cents on drug treatment for every dollar spent on incarceration.
Thousands of low-level drug dealers and users, many of them with nonviolent criminal records, are trapped in a cycle of release, relapse and recidivism. No wonder our prison population has tripled since 1980. No wonder that, across the country, one in every 100 adults is incarcerated. We're the world's leading jailer because we treat drug addiction as a crime and not as a disease.
The JPI and BSAS have agendas, but they wanted to know whether judges, fresh from the front lines, agreed that jailing drug defendants amounts to the systemic insanity that anyone with a lick of common sense can see.
In so many words, the judges agreed.
"As a matter of desperation, you send people to the [Division of Correction] knowing that they won't get treatment there and knowing that when they're released you start all over," said a Circuit Court judge. (Judges quoted in the JPI study were not identified.)
"When," asked a District Court judge, "is society and our government at all levels going to decide that a drug problem is a health care issue and not a criminal justice issue, and that the criminal justice community cannot solve this problem?"
Baltimore has had effective drug-treatment courts at the district and circuit levels for several years. But the conditions for those courts limit the number of defendants referred to them to a few hundred at any given time.
Judges can make "8/505/8-507" commitments, meaning residential treatment under Maryland's Health General Articles 8-505 and 8-507. They also have discretion to refer certain nonviolent drug addicts to a state-run, federally funded program called the Felony Diversion Initiative.
But these options are so limited that thousands of other defendants go through conventional court routines. The judges who sit in these courts, day after eye-glazing day, have no confidence that either incarceration or drug treatment as a condition of probation will do any good. Parole and probation agents are overwhelmed with cases.
"Even people using 8/505-8/507 and the drug courts are the minutiae compared to the rest of us who are using Parole and Probation, giving a suspended sentence and putting the magic words, 'drug treatment' and 'random urinalysis' on the order," a District Court judge said. "We're depending on Parole and Probation to find treatment, and they're not. Defendants are not getting the treatment they need -- people addicted five, 10, 20 or 30 years. We're talking about the general population . falling through a huge sieve."
What to do?
The JPI report makes these suggestions, based on the judicial focus group:
Such a reform was vetoed by the governor last year, with Martin O'Malley saying, "Drug-dealing is a violent crime." A similar measure, the Smart on Crime Act, is coming through the legislature again. It's not known whether the wife of our law-and-order governor took part in the focus group survey, but Katie O'Malley is a District Court judge; she might suggest that her husband heed her colleagues' advice.
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