Harford County Drug Court Changing Lives, Offering Treatment Instead of Incarceration

HARFORD COUNTY, MD (WBFF) – Another side effect of the pandemic is that deaths from drugs and alcohol increased in Maryland during the first part of this year compared to last.

The 2020 quarterly report by the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center was released in mid-June. It looked at data from January through the end of March.

Executive Director Steve Shuh writes “During the first quarter of 2020, intoxication-related deaths from all types of drugs and alcohol increased slightly in Maryland when compared to the first quarter of 2019. Opioid-related deaths increased by 2.6 percent in the same period. While these figures are disappointing on their own, they are met with further indicators –including substantial increases in both cocaine-related and alcohol-related deaths –of a substance use crisis that has been worsened by societal upheaval.”

Experts say this heightens the urgency for intervention.

One such program is seeing success in Harford County.

The Circuit Court Adult Drug Court started in June 2019.

On Monday, the first three graduates of the program received their diplomas.

Joseph Severn is one of the three people successfully completing the program.

“A lot of people are scared to come to court,” Severn says. “I was once too. But I look forward to it now.”

A burden has just been lifted for him. He started in the drug court program in September 2019.

He’s been in treatment at Ashley Addiction Treatment ever since then. It’s been a challenge not just from a treatment perspective, but also with the pandemic.

“It’s almost unbelievable that they were able to accomplish what they did,” says Harford County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Mahoney. “It’s been a little over a year for all three of them.”

“I’ve suffered addiction for over 20 years and I stand, as of right now I hit one year and four months clean. That’s a huge step for me,” Severn says.

“This is a beginning for them. A beginning for their life in a drug-free environment,” Judge Mahoney says.

The three graduates all have had their lives changed, but so have their families.

Severn didn’t have a job when he started the program.

“I’m actively working construction. I’m seeking my Maryland Home Improvement License. I want to build an affordable business. If none of this happened I wouldn’t be in a position to do it,” he says.

He’s also engaged and expecting a baby.

“December of this year we’re expecting a baby girl,” he says. He’s also rebuilt trust with his other kids. “I did establish a new relationship with my children.”

“It’s just a great feeling to know that there is a program that does work. I’ve been through a few programs,” he says.

Those graduating from the Circuit Court Adult Drug Court were facing more serious charges, a year in prison, maybe more.

“No one really gets a whole lot of help when they’re incarcerated for addiction or mental health issues,” says Harford County Executive Barry Glassman.

The ADC program offers them court-supervised treatment, a chance to get their lives back.

“I wanted it. I wanted it for a very long time. It’s just that I couldn’t find it,” Severn says.

A sign has sat outside the Harford County Sheriff’s Office right across the street from the circuit courthouse for years.

“Four years ago when I came on the court the signs that were out were about drunk driving deaths and drunk driving arrests. It quickly shifted,” says Judge Mahoney.

It lists heroin overdoses and lives lost.

So far this year Harford County has had 316 heroin overdoses. 40 people have lost their lives. And Harford County is doing better than other parts of the state.

“Our numbers last quarter are still down 13%,” Glassman says. “That’s when the rest of the state has been seeing increases mainly because the COVID epidemic has put a lot of stress on people.”

“It affects all of us,” says Judge Mahoney.

When it comes to fighting addiction programs like drug courts haven’t been able to enroll as many new people with courts closed during the pandemic. As they’re opening up, they’re looking to change that.

“This program has really given me the avenue to take. I grabbed it and ran with it,” says Severn.

It’s a chance to change more lives just like it’s changed his.

“I’m not free from it. I’ll never be free from it because I know I altered myself, but there’s a big part of me — I’ve put me all into this. I refuse to go backward,” he says.

For background on the program:

Adult Drug Court is a treatment court that saves lives, reunites families, and makes the community safer. The court recognizes that addiction is a disease and offers treatment through a comprehensive, court-supervised treatment program instead of incarceration.

Harford County Circuit Court Judge Kevin J. Mahoney spearheaded the launch of the Adult Drug Court program in June 2019. The Office of Drug Control Policy, a division under Harford County Government’s Department of Community Services, supports this court through a grant provided by the Office of Problem Solving Courts and employees the Drug Court Coordinator and Case Manager. The Harford County Circuit Court Adult Drug Court is a treatment-focused program comprised of four phases that each participant must complete in order to graduate. The first phase focuses on the participant obtaining sobriety. The second phase has participants engage in mental health treatment and start to make short term goals, such as employment. In the third phase, participants are required to participate in a life skills class and encouraged to plan for long-term goals, such as training for a career. In phase four, participants are encouraged to put more emphasis on the support system they have been building throughout their time in the program. They are also preparing for life outside of ADC, such as talking with their providers about continuing care plans.

The Court meets on the first and third Monday of each month. Multiple organizations and agencies make up the team for the program including the Office of Drug Control Policy, Harford County Office of State’s Attorney, Harford County Public Defender’s Office, treatment providers, members of the local health department, law enforcement, and parole and probation.

Qualified defendants are first time offenders, repeat offenders, or those who have violated their probation in an existing case. They must be a Harford County resident, cannot be charged with a violent crime, cannot have pending charges in another jurisdiction, and must be deemed clinically qualified for the program by a health professional.