Judge Baynes Outlines Drug Court Program; Plea Bargains Limit Punishment Options

April 8, 2015

Cecil County’s Drug Court program is getting about a third of its participants off drugs and working to turn their lives around, but the culture of drugs in the county and plea bargains by prosecutors are an uphill struggle, Circuit Court Judge Keith Baynes told the County Council on Tuesday.

Baynes, who serves as the administrative judge for the local Circuit Court as well as presiding over the Drug Court, said there are now 117 participants in the program which seeks to get people convicted of drug-related crimes into treatment for their addiction.

The program requires drug-testing of defendants three or four times a week, intensive counseling, and obtaining a GED if they do not have a high school diploma, with a carrot-and-stick approach. If participants do not comply with the rules, they will be sent to prison to serve potentially lengthy sentences.

Baynes said the program has a 32 percent graduation rate and is seeking an additional case manager to help cope with the increased numbers of participants in the program, which also helps arrange in-patient detox for those who need such services. The judge noted there are no local facilities providing those services and there has been an increasing need to send pregnant women to Baltimore for specialized treatment to get them off drugs as quickly as possible.

Trying to get defendants to turn their lives around is a very difficult process, Baynes said, because many of them grew up in a culture of drug abuse and “that’s all they know.” Virtually all of the defendants his court deals with are longtime county residents, attended local public schools, and have deep family roots in the county, he noted.

“It’s not like Nancy Reagan, just say no,” Baynes said. “Their world is different from our world.”

Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1) asked if the presence of methadone clinics in Elkton was “attracting an undesirable element to our county.” Baynes replied that “people aren’t coming here because there’s a methadone clinic here” and that “the drug problem was here before the methadone clinics came.”

Baynes said that one of the two local clinics “runs a pretty good ship” but the other “leaves a lot to be desired.” He said that Drug Court participants who use methadone as part of their rehab must still submit to the program’s frequent drug testing—conducted at the Sheriff’s Community Corrections center—especially since one local clinic does not routinely test patients for illegal substances.

Councilors Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) and Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) questioned seemingly short sentences imposed on repeat drug offenders, including dealers, in the Circuit Court.

“I’d like to see us convict our way” out of the drug problem and send dealers to state prison for long sentences, Schneckenburger said. Sentences of 18 months or less allow defendants to serve their time in the county Detention Center—at cost to local taxpayers— when they should be “pushed down to the Maryland system” with longer terms “to get them out of the county,” Schneckenburger said.

Baynes said that the newly expanded four-judge Circuit Court is “doing a good job” and is “tough on criminals.” Now, “that revolving door has stopped,” he said. (The Circuit Court has had a complete turnover of judges in the past few years, including the departure of one judge who was dubbed “let ‘em go” in local legal circles.)

But a key issue is that up to 75 percent of criminal cases in the county are currently resolved by plea bargains negotiated by the State’s Attorney’s office, Baynes said. Judges have to sentence a defendant on the charges ultimately presented in court, and if they have been watered down via a plea deal, the court’s options are limited.

Baynes said that judges often are not informed by prosecutors of the reasons why a serious charge might have been bargained down to a lesser charge. But one persistent problem in the county, he said, is that witnesses are often reluctant to testify in court, even if they have been victim of a crime, because “they are part of that circle” of the defendant’s family and friends.

The County Council is scheduled to hear next from State’s Attorney Ellis Rollins III about his view of the county drug problem. Sheriff Scott Adams appeared recently before the council to discuss the drug issue from his law enforcement perspective.

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