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Officials: Some merits to crime plan

February 03, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Washington County officials last week said while Gov. Robert Ehrlich's main anti-crime initiatives may be difficult to get started, they could prove effective against the county's drug-related crimes.

In his State of the State address last Wednesday, Ehrlich outlined three main initiatives that would directly target drug users and violent criminals who use guns.

Ehrlich is pursuing faith-based anti-drug programs. If he gets his way in the General Assembly session this year, there would be more special courts in Maryland to hear criminal cases involving drug addicts and the state would adopt Project Exile.

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Project Exile would target cases in which criminals used guns. Local prosecutors would forward those cases to the federal court system, where there would be a minimum penalty of five years in jail. The convicted felons also would be jailed in a prison outside the state.

Local law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges agreed that if all the programs were wrapped together, they could be a formidable foe against crime here. However, not all would necessarily work without other components, they said.

Drug courts are high on Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith's wish list. He said they could help chip away at the long-term problems associated with drug users - shootings, domestic fights, robberies and other violent crimes - by helping drug abusers fight their addictions.

And "as it cuts down the demand for drugs ... it opens up the prosecutor's resources, the court resources and the police resources," Smith said.

Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III said the concept is a good one but cautioned, "It won't happen until there is a support network set up by the executive branch to provide treatment and counseling" for addicts.

The county has an in-jail treatment program and the state's HotSpots anti-crime grants helps some with addiction services, but that program is in jeopardy under the Ehrlich administration.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said that while Ehrlich has made promises to support education and fight crime, HotSpots "is certainly not something he supported during the campaign."

A Baltimore judge who runs a drug court there said the special courts are expensive to get started, but they're worth it in the long run.

"You have to spend money to make money, so to speak," said District Court Judge Jamey Weitzman, who chairs a committee of judges that is educating legislators about drug courts.

But while the court is more expensive to run in the short run, she said the treatment programs available to addicts cut down social costs in the long term, such as babies born to addicted mothers and the costs associated with unemployment, Weitzman said.

Local officials said Project Exile also could be a good program, although they said there are some questions that need to be answered.

"The people of Washington County will benefit (from Project Exile) - assuming the United States Attorney is willing to take all of these cases," Washington County State's Attorney Kenneth Long said.

If the legislature passes the necessary funding measure, state prosecutors would have to turn over cases that fit Project Exile requirements - felony cases in which the suspect used a firearm. Then it would be up to the U.S. Attorney's office to prosecute the case.

The problem, Long said, is the federal prosecutors "have thresholds and they have policies" to admit cases. "We're all going to have to wait and see how it shakes out."

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