State Is Testing, Treating Thousands More Criminal

State Is Testing, Treating Thousands More Criminal
Posted by FoM on January 17, 1999 at 06:17:47 PT

Nearly 6,200 criminals released on parole and probation in Maryland have been ordered to report to authorities twice a week for urine tests as part of a landmark attempt to overhaul how the state supervises drug-addicted offenders, according to state officials.
The figure is more than five times higher than it was just two months ago -- a sign the state's ambitious "Break the Cycle" program is expanding rapidly. Under the plan, all 25,000 drug addicts on parole and probation in Maryland eventually will be required to undergo treatment and frequent testing -- and face swift, escalating punishments if they skip a treatment session or test positive for drug use.No other state has tried to hold its entire population of drug-addicted parolees and probationers accountable to such a frequent regimen of testing, and Maryland's attempt to do so is being watched by criminal justice policymakers across the nation.The enterprise faces a range of obstacles, particularly if large numbers of offenders test positive and the state is unable to punish them effectively. But if it succeeds, proponents such as Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) believe it could cut demand for heroin, cocaine and other drugs in the state nearly in half -- undermining the illicit drug markets that fuel crime and violence in many neighborhoods.In addition, Townsend and others say, the program could wean thousands of addicts off drugs and bring about sharp reductions in the kinds of low-level crimes that drug offenders are known to commit repeatedly, such as burglaries, thefts, vandalism and prostitution.The testing began slowly this fall in seven jurisdictions: Prince George's, Montgomery, Howard, Charles, Washington and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City. As local judges, probation agents, treatment providers and jail officials worked out the details, the number of offenders ordered into the program jumped sharply, from about 1,200 in the first week of November to nearly 6,200 as of the first week of January.Each jurisdiction has its own sanctions for offenders who test positive for drugs or skip treatment sessions. The response usually begins with closer supervision and escalates with repeated infractions, ultimately leading to possible penalties imposed in court. The goal is to use the criminal justice system to force drug addicts to remain in treatment -- a departure from the conventional wisdom that addicts must "want to change" to kick their habits."I've been putting people into Break the Cycle, and I'm optimistic it's going to make a difference," said William D. Missouri, the Circuit Court administrative judge in Prince George's. "But I probably won't have a good sense of the results until the beginning of February."Though testing of offenders is well underway in the seven jurisdictions and is set to expand to the rest of the state by the end of the year, it's unclear whether offenders are being punished quickly or severely enough to change their behavior."We're still far from where we want to be," said Adam Gelb, Townsend's policy adviser. "The sanctions are not as swift, as certain or as stiff as we'd like to see them, but we are clearly moving in the right direction."Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the state has not yet determined how often offenders are failing the drug tests, how they are being punished when they do so or how many of them are completing treatment programs.He said the greatest obstacle will be trying to force probation agents to act quickly when an offender fails a drug test or misses a treatment appointment. In the past, agents rarely learned when offenders dropped out of treatment, and they could order only seven urine tests per month for their entire caseloads, which average more than 100 offenders apiece."The challenge is rearranging the culture of parole and probation," Sipes said. "Remember, the average offender has received very little face-to-face contact with agents because of the huge caseloads. . . . Now we're trying to change that for the majority of the active caseload. The bottom line is whether this department can rally to such an intensive supervision strategy."The first hint of how well Break the Cycle is working will come in February, when University of Maryland criminologist Faye Taxman completes a preliminary report on the program's progress in the seven jurisdictions."The data I have suggest that things are actually moving along pretty smoothly in each of the jurisdictions, but I'm anticipating different problems in different places," she said. "We anticipate most of the jurisdictions will do very well in testing offenders. The question will be, if offenders continue to test positive, how will the agents and judges respond?"  Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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