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How Maryland’s Problem Solving Courts Can Offer an Alternative to Prison

Alcohol and drug addiction are serious social problems that often land abusers in trouble with the law. To enable individuals to recover from their addictions many states, including Maryland, have established alternative “drug courts” that provide an alternative to imprisonment for individuals charged with crimes like DUI or possession of a controlled substance. Maryland refers to these courts as “problem solving courts” (PSC) and they exist in some form in most counties.

As explained by Maryland’s court rules, a PSC offers a “multi-disciplinary and integrated approach incorporating collaboration by the court with other governmental entities, community organizations, and parties.” When a defendant is referred to a PSC, they must enter into a written agreement. The agreement basically spells out the defendant’ obligation to enroll in–and complete–a treatment program. The agreement also includes other restrictions and requirements that are effectively a form of probation. This means that if the defendant fails to abide by the terms of the agreement, they are subject to termination from their treatment program and imprisonment.

Court of Appeals Addresses Concerns Over Judicial Impartiality in Drug Court Revocation Hearings

A recent decision from the Maryland Court of Appeals, Conner v. State, addressed one concern that has arisen from the use of drug courts. In this case, the defendant pleaded guilty to multiple charges of theft. The court sentenced the defendant to 15 year in prison, but suspended the prison term in favor of five years probation and successful completion of a drug court program.

Two years later, prosecutors alleged the defendant violated his probation by continuing to use drugs and alcohol and otherwise failing to meet the terms of his drug court agreement. The circuit court then held a hearing to decide whether or not to revoke the defendant’s probation and send him to prison. The judge assigned to the hearing also “intermittently” served on the drug court.

The defense moved to recuse the judge, arguing that it would “create an appearance of impropriety.” Basically, when a judge is sitting in drug court, they are privy to sensitive information about a defendant’s drug and alcohol use that would not be available in a normal criminal proceeding. The judge decided there was no conflict and denied the motion. The judge subsequently revoked the defendant’s probation, terminated him from the drug court program, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison on the original theft conviction.

The Court of Appeals determined that under the facts of this particular case, the judge was not required to recuse himself. Nevertheless, the Court acknowledged there were “potential ethical and due process concerns that may arise in the Drug Court setting.” The Court therefore said it would ask its Standing Committee on Rules to consider additional guidelines for judicial recusal in these situations.

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This article has been provided by the Law office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.