A major downturn in the number of people getting arrested for low-level drug offenses in Maryland would seem to be good news for those worried about overcrowded jails and the effects of a criminal record on an individual’s life. But a consequence of this trend could actually cause problems for people struggling with drug addiction and make it more likely that they go to jail rather than get treatment.
An alternative to jail for many
Maryland’s criminal law system offers a drug diversion program for certain low-level offenders through what is called the “8-507” program. When someone is convicted of certain drug-related crimes, the judge can sentence them to an addiction treatment program alongside — or instead of — incarceration. Last year, Maryland courts placed 519 people in the 8-507 program.
But as of Oct. 15, only 233 people have been placed this year. A big reason for this is the fact that police throughout the state are making fewer drug arrests. That’s mostly by design. Officials in Baltimore and elsewhere announced earlier this year that they were suspending the bringing of charges for things like drug possession in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shutdown of courts. As a result, Baltimore police made 76 percent fewer low-level drug arrests through Oct. 10 compared with the same time period in 2019.
The connection between drug diversion and arrests
The 8-507 program gets funding based on the number of participants. A huge drop like what is going on right now can put the program in jeopardy long-term. Some critics say this could be a good thing for defendants, who often face the “choice” of going to rehab or going to jail. This raises the question of whether the current funding structure helps people with addiction or exploits them.
Regardless, it is a fact that many, if not most, people who are arrested on drug possession and similar charges are dealing with addiction, a medical issue and not a criminal one. While there may be problems with how the 8-507 program works, making treatment a possibility for offenders is a humane alternative to imprisonment.