A new state law that took effect this week makes major changes to criminal justice policies. The law is intended to save the state money by reducing prison populations, then invest the savings in crime prevention efforts.
But one provision in the new law that is designed to send offenders to treatment for drug and alcohol addiction may not work as planned.
When a defendant is sentenced, he can ask to serve part, or all, of his sentence in an addiction treatment program. If a clinical evaluation determines that treatment makes sense, the judge can issue an order.
Under the new law that went into effect on Oct. 1, the state Department of Health has 21 days to fulfill each order, known as an 8-507 order for the corresponding statute.
But Erik Roskes, the health department’s director of forensic services, said that may not happen.
“It’s an experiment, basically,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to meet it. We’re gonna try.”
In the past, placing a defendant in treatment took 167 days on average — roughly five and a half months.
Many of those past delays were the result of a lack of resources, said Ricardo Flores, the Office of the Public Defender’s state policy advocate.
“There are a significant number of cases where just about everybody in the courtroom would agree that the defendant, who's now 10 steps into the justice system, ought to be dealt with through treatment,” Flores said, “and there's nothing that anybody can do.”
But the department got a budget boost last fiscal year. Roskes said it can now pay for between 750 and 900 people to receive treatment this fiscal year — more than enough to cover the roughly 400 people the department usually sends.
Rather than a question of resources, the current delay in drug treatment placements is the result of bureaucratic process, Roskes said.
“The most common example is a defendant who is in a jail or a prison on one case that the judge ordered the 8-507, but there may be another case outstanding, and that second case precludes their release,” he said. “That's very common.”
For example, Roskes described a defendant who a judge ordered transferred to treatment back in January, but the defendant had other court cases pending. On Sept. 13, he was finally cleared to transfer, and 17 days later — this past Saturday — he was admitted for treatment.
Whether that counts as nine months of waiting or 17 days is up to interpretation, Roskes said.
According to Maryland District Court Chief Judge John Morrissey, judges typically talk to each other to ensure that those kinds of processing delays don’t happen often.
“You may want to defer that 8-507 commitment if you see the person still has six months left on some other jail term, right?” Morrissey said. “Or you may pick up the phone and call the other judge and say, 'What do you want to do with this? ... Can the cases be consolidated?' Or, you know, 'Are you going to do the 8-507?'"
Judges can also issue a sentence of jail time followed by drug treatment. In those cases, the 21-day timer doesn’t start until after the defendant serves the time behind bars.
Delays can also result from disciplinary issues within a jail or prison, Roskes said, such as if a defendant gets into trouble after the judge issues an 8-507 order but before the defendant gets admitted for treatment.
And even after the Department of Health is allowed to transfer someone, there’s some paperwork that can cause additional delays.
But Roskes said the department is working on it. The median wait time for someone to get treatment was between 80 and 90 days in July, he said, but the department was able to cut that to 57 days in August.
“Fifty-seven days is not 21 days, but it’s also not 90 days,” Roskes said. “So I’m very optimistic about where we're headed."
If the department can’t meet that 21-day deadline, the state health secretary could be held in contempt of court, said state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chairman of the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings committee.
“Every day that somebody who needs to be in treatment stays in jail are dollars that are wasted in the criminal justice system,” Zirkin said.
After all, he said, that was the whole point of the new law — to reinvest the state’s money in criminal justice practices that have been proven more effective than jailing people who need treatment for drug addiction.