ELKTON — While the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the postponement of hundreds of Cecil County Circuit Court criminal proceedings since mid-March, 30 to 40 Cecil County Adult Drug Court cases are being handled – remotely – in a courtroom every Friday, according to court officials.
Cecil County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Keith A. Baynes, who has presided over drug court proceedings for the past nine years, explained that drug court matters are acceptable in accordance with Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Mary Ellen Barbera’s March 16 order that limited all Maryland courthouses to “restricted emergency operations.”
The order, which remains in effect until June 5, after three extensions, closed all courthouses to the general public – with limited exceptions – and halted all criminal and civil jury trials, because the directive stopped the summoning of jurors into courthouse to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Other listed exceptions include bail review hearings and juvenile detention hearings.)
Court provides structure
Defendants in adult drug court program would be at risk if they were to go a long stretch without participating in their weekly or twice-monthly hearings, according to court officials. That’s because the goal of adult drug court is to help defendants reestablish their lives and become productive, sober citizens, while still addressing their addictions, they explained.
“It is a daily struggle for them, and they need that structure,” Baynes said, referring to adult drug court defendants who are battling their addictions. “Not only does it provide structure, it allows them to talk to their case manager regularly and to get treatment.”
Sheri Lazarus, coordinator of Cecil County Adult Drug Court, which currently has approximately 90 participating defendants, echoed Baynes.
“The purpose is to give them structure and, when this pandemic hit, we were very concerned about them losing that structure. We didn’t want them to fall back to where they were,” Lazarus said, referring to the courthouse restrictions that resulted. “So we had to think outside the box and we did.”
The program, now functioning remotely for the most part, keeps the defendants closely monitored, because drug-testing is one of the components of the adult drug court program. These days, amid the coronavirus pandemic, drug-testing is strategically performed inside a first-floor bathroom about 10 feet away from the Cecil County Circuit Courthouse lobby.
“Testing is done with all precautions. There is social distancing. It is done one person at a time. The next person waits outside. Everyone wears a mask,” Baynes outlined.
Lazarus reported that the continued testing, amid the coronavirus pandemic, allows her four case managers — three full-time and one part-time — to act quickly if a drug court defendant has relapsed. They are able to steer them to treatment programs and, in rare cases because of the pandemic, even place them in residential treatment facilities, she said.
“I’m not saying we haven’t had some relapses, because we definitely have. But a lot of them are maintaining their sobriety through all of this,” Lazarus said, acknowledging that coronavirus-related “stay-at-home” orders and directives to wear masks in certain public places, as well as the loss of employment for some, creates stress, which can be a catalyst for relapses.
Recovery group an option
Because of the restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lazarus’ staff created a Smart Recovery Group, which meets remotely in conference fashion every Tuesday.
“It allows them to talk about things they are struggling with, whether it is their sobriety or the pandemic itself,” Lazarus said of the Smart Recovery Group, which has proved to be a solid supplement to the adult drug court program.
Outline of drug court program
Cecil County Adult Drug Court is a two-year program aimed at treating qualified defendants who have been convicted of “non-violent, drug-motivated” crimes and, as a result, are facing more than one year in jail. It is a voluntary program for offenders whose primary diagnosis is substance abuse. It is a post-plea program for defendants who reside in Cecil County.
In addition to subjecting themselves to random and scheduled drug testing and frequent courtroom sessions, drug court defendants must undergo counseling and treatment through the Cecil County Health Department and meet specified goals, such as earning their GED and securing employment.
A drug court defendant can face penalties, including weekend stays in jail or longer, for the presence of drugs in a tested urine sample, failure to attend a meeting or courtroom session and other violations.
“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is a tough program. It is time-consuming. There are a lot of things they have to do, before they can graduate,” Baynes emphasized.
Should a defendant continually fail to comply with the rules of the adult drug court program, they would be dismissed from the program and likely would face a portion or even all of the suspended sentences that were imposed after their original criminal cases were adjudicated by way of guilty plea.
Drug court during a pandemic
As for the remote adult drug court hearings held during the past several Fridays, it is almost business as usual, except the defendants are not sitting in a courtroom together, waiting for his or her case to be called. Drug court sessions are staggered, meaning one group of defendants takes part one Friday, another batch participates the next Friday, and so forth.
Instead, at the outset several weeks ago, each defendant called in or logged in at his or her appointed time. The remote proceedings start at about 10 a.m. and lasted about 90 minutes. Now they are handled as conference-style courtroom sessions, allowing all defendants to listen to each case as they wait their turns, according to Lazarus.
“We do it all remotely on Zoom. Most of them do it on their cell phones. Some may do it on computers. Some are at work when they call. Some are at home,” Baynes said. “We try to keep it as normal as possible, except they are not here. I’m the only one in the courtroom. (drug court staff members) take part from their offices. We get to see them and they get to see us,” Baynes said, adding, “This gives them structure and they seem glad to have it.”
In addition to receiving support and guidance from Baynes and the adult court staff, adult drug court defendants have, on some occasions, received encouragement from each other.
“They are happy to see each other,” Lazarus said, noting that drug court defendants share the common bond of battling addiction. “We had one woman who reached out on Facebook to another (defendant) who was struggling to give support.”
Also, according to Lazarus, when a struggling drug court defendant hears a fellow participate talk about his or her success, it provides motivation for that struggling person. “It’s kind of like, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’ They hear positive things, and they feed off of each other.”
Lazarus commended her staff of case managers, explaining that, beyond those weekly remote courtroom sessions on Fridays, they have been hard at work calling and emailing drug court defendants throughout the week to see if they are experiencing problems and to offer support and encouragement.
“My staff has gone above and beyond during this (coronavirus pandemic),” Lazarus said.
She also reported that law enforcement officers have helped, too, by conducting home-checks on drug court defendants at times.
In late April or early May, a woman, having met all of the requirements, graduated from the adult drug court program during one of those remote sessions, Baynes reported. Her graduation was held then — instead of waiting for a time when the woman, fellow drug court defendants and court officials could celebrate together in the same courtroom — because she had plans to move out of the area, he explained.
“We have three or four more who are set to graduate, too, but we are waiting to have their graduations when we can all be together again,” Baynes said.