Drug Czar Looks to Baltimore’s Drug Court for Inspiration

Gil Kerlikowske, America’s drug czar, is looking to Baltimore’s 15-year-old drug treatment court to help set the nation’s strategy of emphasizing treatment over incarceration. The Baltimore Sun reports that Kerlikowske met with legislators and a drug court judge to discuss the program and collaborate efforts between city, state, and federal agencies.

During a news conference, Kerlikowske noted that released prisoners “almost invariably go back to the neighborhood from whence they came,” and that without treatment, “all we’re doing is recycling people throughout the system.”

It’s been suggested that the Obama administration will focus on drugs as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement problem, and in Baltimore, drug addiction is “the most significant public health crisis” there is, according to Greg Warren, president of the Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc, which sets the city’s drug strategy.

Every year, 9,000 convicts are returned to Baltimore streets, and many of them return to the drug abuse that led them to incarceration. Most of the city’s criminal activity is drug-related, with 80 percent (or four out of five people) failing their initial drug tests.

The first drug treatment court was developed in Florida in 1989 when crack cocaine addiction was labeled an epidemic. The idea behind drug courts is to lessen the burden on courts and jails by attempting to treat drug-addicted individuals before imprisoning them.

Today there are more than 1,000 drug courts across the country, according to a 2005 University of Maryland report that studied the effects of Baltimore’s drug court, which was created in 1994 in response to a city Bar Association claim that 85 percent of Baltimore crimes were drug related.

In Baltimore, participants must live in the city and be at least 18, and they can’t have committed a violent offense. They are supervised and regularly drug tested during their treatment. However, Baltimore’s intensive probation supervision and the significant participation of the Division of Parole and Probation are atypical.

Baltimore’s drug court participants are about three times more likely to be employed after the program as other convicts, and are a third as likely to use drugs during treatment, according to Representative Elijah E. Cummings, who added, “We want Baltimore to be a model.”

Cummings stressed the need for more resources and the role the federal government has in providing them, which is the main reason he wanted Kerlikowske to become familiar with Baltimore’s system. “You want the federal government to be sensitive to things that are working,” Cummings said, to ensure that “the city has a better chance at getting the resources it needs.”

Kerlikowske said he “absolutely” plans to incorporate Baltimore’s efforts into the country’s policy.