Focus shift continues in drug recovery court
Change in marijuana laws drops referrals
The ongoing phase-out of St. Mary’s juvenile substance abuse recovery court, after the state’s decriminalization of marijuana possession, leaves an adult version still intact, according to its coordinator, and the possibility of a separate focus on impaired drivers.
“That was the primary drug for those coming into our program,” Pete Cucinotta, the circuit court’s drug court coordinator, said during a recent interview. “The number of referrals was declining rapidly,” he added, noting that other jurisdictions in Maryland were experiencing the same transition.
“This is a trend statewide,” he said. “Most of them have closed up. We were on the tail end of what was going on around the state.”
The adult version of the program, one that focuses on
addressing underlying addiction problems of defendants whose cases qualify for admission and the potential for an alternative disposition, remains in operation in the courtroom of retired Circuit Judge Karen H. Abrams.
The juvenile drug court got its start in St. Mary’s 14 years ago, and in his chambers this week, Circuit Judge Michael J. Stamm, now the local court’s administrative judge, said its benefits will continue through the county’s regular juvenile court system.
“We’re not giving up on kids,” Stamm said. “We’re doing a different focus.”
With the simple possession of marijuana no longer an incarcerable offense, juvenile services authorities could no longer use that alone as a basis for a “high-risk, high-need” delinquency referral, the judge said, which would begin the path of a young person’s case through the state’s attorney’s office to the courtroom. Wide-
spread opioid addiction issues are not as prevalent in juvenile crime, the judge said, adding “to be in drug court, you had to be an addict of some type.”
During its 14-year-run, the St. Mary’s juvenile drug court, somewhat like its equivalent for adults, offered an alternative to the possibility of long-term detention at a juvenile facility, if the youthful offender successfully went through more than a year of intensive monitoring and rehabilitation, with frequent progress reviews by the judge and other participating authorities.
The program had a successful graduation rate of 52 percent, Stamm said, and an “extremely low” number of the graduates returned to criminal activity.
“I’m pretty bittersweet about it,” the judge said of ending the program. “I’m proud of the success. We did well.”
The regular juvenile court system, initially through agents with the department of juvenile services, continues to look for “underlying issues” of addiction when juveniles
are accused of offenses including shoplifting, the judge said.
“The focus now is on opioid abuse,” he said, as the drug issues evolve, and the commitment to assess and address juvenile offenders’ problems continues. “You’re supposed to treat the specialized needs of each child. These are all things that we can offer,
and we still do.”
Cucinotta earlier said that admissions to the county’s juvenile drug court ended last February, and that the last children to qualify for its services can continue pursuing its potential benefits for the regular allotted time.
“Those in the program would have a full year to complete the program,”
the coordinator said. “There’s only about three people left.”
While the adult substance recovery court continues, with a full docket of cases to review each month, Cucinotta said its approach may be enhanced and expanded.
“We may have some changes for the adult[s] that are coming,” he said, including a new court program focused on impaired drivers, and not just those consuming alcohol.
“It could [also] be other drugs,” he said, if the methods of detecting drivers’ use of those substances are enforceable in making an arrest, and in court. “The science is still catching up with that,” he said.
Pete Cucinotta, left, St. Mary’s drug court coordinator, with the county’s jurists including Circuit Judge Michael J. Stamm.