ANNAPOLIS – James Craig stands at the front of the courtroom and recites the statistics of his life with a strange kind of pride:
Addicted to heroin and cocaine for 31 years.
In and out of 22 methadone clinics and 17 detox centers.
Arrested 34 times.
“For 31 years I was a prisoner long before I had handcuffs on,” he said.
That was before Craig, now 55, became one of the first people to join a then-experimental program known as drug court, which started in Baltimore in 1994.
The program is an intensive, court-supervised drug treatment program that asks addicts to trade a stay in jail for the hard road to getting clean. It usually takes about a year – a year in which participants go almost daily to group and solo counseling sessions, Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, random drug tests and check-up sessions with the judge before they are allowed to “pass.”
Those who make it through the program, like Craig, who now operates rooming houses in Baltimore for other recovering addicts, are called graduates.
Despite 12 years experience with drug courts in Maryland, the author of a recent study of Maryland drug treatment programs by the Justice Policy Institute says there is no way to tell whether drug court has helped helps reduce crime and relapse rates in Maryland.
But that has not discouraged supporters of the state’s drug courts from pointing to successes like Craig and arguing that court-supervised addiction treatment programs are working to cut crime and should be better funded.
“If you use the drug court system for 80 percent of the cases instead of 20 percent of the cases…you have a lot less crime,” said Frank R. Weathersbee, state’s attorney for Anne Arundel County and a proponent of the county’s program, which started in 1997.
Kevin Pranis, author of the Justice Policy Institute study, said that the data suggest that counties that focus on treating non-violent drug offenders instead of sending them to prison tend to have lower crime rates.
The state seems to agree. Maryland officials secured nearly $5 million in federal grants for the current fiscal year to run the 32 drug courts in the state. Three years ago, that figure was zero.
In addition to the federal money, Pranis said, another $500,000 in state funds also goes toward the program. Nine more drug courts are being planned.
But drug court is only one small piece of the treatment puzzle, Pranis said.
From 2001 to 2005, addicts referred for treatment through the criminal justice system accounted for 27 percent of admissions to state-funded treatment programs. Only a small fraction of those go to drug court, said Pranis, because many addicts don’t qualify or aren’t likely to last through the rigors of drug court.
People admitted to the program are first-time or petty offenders arrested for mostly misdemeanor charges, with no history of violent crime. It focuses on addicts, so drug dealers without an addiction are unlikely to be referred.
Those who are admitted to the program and “fail out” have to return to jail.
“Everybody wants the Hallmark-card defendant for the drug treatment program–the lowest risk candidates,” said Lloyd Merriam, district public defender for Harford County.
Steven Cochran, 49, was arrested on petty theft charges in 2005, but was sent to drug court in Anne Arundel County with the promise of a suspended sentence if he completed it.
“I was doing a lot of drugs,” he said. “Whatever I could do to get drugs, I did.”
Just a little under a year after his sentencing, Cochran sat before Judge James W. Dryden, “Drug Free Body” printed in black across the back of his white tee shirt, and accepted a certificate of graduation while his wife, Denise, wiped away tears of relief.
Janet Ward, the drug and DUI treatment coordinator for Anne Arundel County, said that among graduates from the county’s drug court, only 10 to 12 percent go back to using.
That success rate surprises Jennifer Moore, deputy executive director of the Maryland Drug Courts Commission, who said that a 10 to 12 percent recidivism rate but unlikely in other jurisdictions.
“Baltimore City would never see only a 10 percent recidivism,” she said.
According to Pranis’ study, Baltimore sends people into treatment nearly twice as often as the state as a whole.
Pranis also wrote that the city sends addicts to prison at a high rate, even though it has four drug courts available, including specialized courts for juveniles and DUI convictions.
The study suggests that poorer regions of the state would like to refer more convicts to treatment but lack the financial resources.
Staffing drug courts in Harford County was difficult because of cost, said Merriam, the county public defender, even though Harford is not one of the poorer counties in the state.
The study indicates that Harford County also imprisons drug offenders at a high rate. This is not necessarily because they want to send people to jail, said Merriam, but the drug court is nearly a seven-day-per-week commitment and the county does not have a well-established public transportation system.
“There can be a legitimate concern that you may be setting your client up for failure,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s so hard to complete the program that it’s almost easier not to do the program,” said Nicholas Rattal, an attorney with the public defender’s office in Prince George’s County.
Garrett County in Western Maryland has relatively limited resources for its residents. It has no drug court and does not plan to set one up.
But the mainly rural county runs its own treatment program in the county jail, and ranks relatively high in sending people to treatment rather than prison.
Educators come in and talk about drug addiction, said jail supervisor Larry Gnegy. When inmates complete the program, it can help reduce their sentence. “Generally, in District Court, where misdemeanors are handled, virtually everyone is recommended for treatment,” said Garrett County State’s Attorney Lisa Thayer Welch. – 30- – 09222006