Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Court offers alternative to jail time

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
Caseworker Sabrina J. Moore (right) of Laurel meets with Virgie Powell of Hyattsville during her weekly visit Monday to the county Drug Court in Upper Marlboro. Powell, who smoked crack cocaine off and on for eight years, entered the court’s rehabilitation program five days before Christmas. ‘‘It was the best present I could have. I’m able to get my life back together,” Powell said.
Step inside Judge Maureen Lamasney’s courtroom any Thursday morning, and you may be surprised by her tone.

Rather than taking pleas and advising defendants of their rights, the Circuit Court judge greets the people summoned before her with compliments and encouragement. The defense attorneys and prosecutors rarely speak.

‘‘What a nice dress. You’re looking beautiful,” she tells 49-year-old Virgie Powell of Hyattsville before asking how she is doing.

The compliment is a dire contrast from their first meeting just six weeks earlier, when Powell was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, serving time for buying crack cocaine from an undercover officer.

Lamasney oversees Drug Court, which provides a second chance for a few of the approximately 2,000 people convicted of drug-related offenses in Prince George’s County every year.

Modeled after programs started in Florida in 1989, drug courts are founded on an approach that emphasizes treatment over punishment.

‘‘In jail, they’re not getting these services,” said Julisa Robinson, director of the county’s adult and juvenile Drug Court programs. ‘‘This is about building our participants to a higher level. This isn’t just about getting them drug free. This is about getting them housing, getting them a job ... building everything with them.”

In Prince George’s, a small group is given a chance to work its way out of addiction under close supervision from Lamasney and court officers. Participants must be county residents who have not committed a violent offense, used a gun or been involved in a domestic assault. People with a history of mental illness also aren’t allowed to participate.

‘‘It’s not fair to them, or to the case workers,” said Stephanie D’Amato, program coordinator for the adult court.” ‘‘We just aren’t equipped.”

All participants are put in drug court as part of a plea agreement.

The county’s Drug Court, started Jan. 31, 2002, will graduate its 88th person on its anniversary this week. Participants must have a job, complete therapy and pass drug tests for at least six months to graduate. While there is no limit on how long a person can remain under the court’s supervision, most stay for at least 18 months.

About 250 people have participated in the program since it began, D’Amato said.

The county program currently serves about 115 adults at a time, and runs a separate court for juveniles.

If graduates stay out of court for the next three years, they can apply to have their original criminal charge erased.

A recent survey by county health officials estimated that 8 percent of the county population over the age of 12 are dependent on alcohol or drugs and could benefit from treatment.

County homicide detectives said the majority of Prince George’s 130 or more killings a year involve some aspect of the drug trade, while crime experts estimate a significant number of the thefts, robberies and other property crimes in the county are perpetrated by addicts.

‘‘I’d be low-balling it if I said 65 percent of the people in jail were there on drug-related offenses,” said Sharon Warrick, one of the Drug Court’s six caseworkers.

Road to recovery

For Powell, drug court was a way out of county jail in Upper Marlboro. She had spent close to a year there before she was released under the program, five days before Christmas.

‘‘It was the best present I could have. I’m able to get my life back together,” said Powell, who said she smoked crack off and on for eight years before her arrest.

Like all drug court participants, Powell must go through several phases before graduation. She already completed the first, which required her to stay at home for 30 days with an electronic monitoring bracelet, except for weekly trips to the court to check in with the judge and stops at medical offices in Upper Marlboro for urine tests and counseling.

Caseworkers check in daily with the ‘‘clients,” enforcing 10 p.m. curfews and getting the results of their tests within days.

The tests and counseling continue throughout the program, though they become less frequent. However, all participants make a regular visit to Judge Lamasney at the Thursday court sessions.

As the morning wears on at drug court, Lamasney begins taking on the problem cases — people who have missed counseling or failed a recent drug test.

Lamasney asks each person the same question: ‘‘What happened?”

For one woman, Lamasney hands out her usual sentence for a first-time positive test.

‘‘I want you to write an essay on the harm that drugs have done to your life,” she tells the woman. ‘‘You need to sit down, think about everything and put it in writing.”

Other punishments for program violators include community service, house arrest or earlier curfews. In some problem cases, violators are sent back to jail.

Case workers and program officials have come to accept that staying drug-free is difficult for many participants.

‘‘People think they just have to try it one more time,” said Warrick, who worked for the county Health Department as a substance abuse counselor before becoming the court’s first case manager. ‘‘I understand. If you’ve been using for at least 20 years, it takes at least that long to stop.”

Many people drop out of drug court, choosing to serve out their sentence or an alternative punishment rather than treatment.

‘‘There are lots of requirements and expectations,” D’Amato says. ‘‘Some people choose the easier option.”

Many others stick with it. Warrick points to one of her cases at court that morning, a man who has been in the program for three years and just tested positive for the first time in five months.

‘‘He has a job. He’s making it, and he’s doing well,” she said. ‘‘To me, that three years is worth it.”

‘You can do this’

It’s the caseworkers that keep the program going, administrators said. Paid for by the county Health Department, drug court workers are a combination of parole officer, personal assistant, social worker and best friend.

Each worker handles up to 25 participants at a time, checking with them daily and helping them find jobs, get education and find a places to live. The position pays about $40,000 per year.

Recently, Powell met with caseworker Sabrina J. Moore to go over her resume as she starts her job search. Every five minutes, another of Moore’s clients would call her cell phone.

‘‘I’m always telling them, ‘You can do this,’” she said. ‘‘You do your part, and I’ll do my part.”

Moore currently has 12 people she checks on daily, allowing her personal interaction. In contrast, the average probation officer in the state handles about 60 or more people, preventing as much interaction.

It’s an experience Robinson knows firsthand. As a former probation officer in Montgomery County, she said she was often overloaded and unable to help her clients.

‘‘When I hit 100, that’s when I transferred,” she said.

Hired last May, Moore is one of two new caseworkers added to the program. Their addition should allow the court to serve about 150 people at once by September, D’Amato said.

While officials credit the program’s success, they also wish it were larger.

‘‘It’s a great program for the people who can get in,” said Glenn F. Ivey, county state’s attorney.

Although the county pays the salaries of caseworkers, a state grant pays the rest of the drug court’s $500,000 annual cost, and officials have to apply every year to renew it.

‘‘I dream that some day the county will take it over and fund it,” Robinson said. ‘‘Right now, the only way we survive is the grant.”

Starting this summer, Lamasney is expected to expand her approach to children, running a truancy court for those who are chronically absent from class.

The court will likely involve the same intense monitoring and alternative punishments that have been used in drug court — a process Powell said has helped her.

The former accountant is hoping to find a job soon.

‘‘I look forward to climbing the ladder again,” she said.

E-mail Daniel Valentine at