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Maryland State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner's Drug Prosecution Priorities Spark Controversy


September 1996

On July 4, Montgomery County, MD State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner announced a new drug enforcement policy that enhances prosecution against more significant or violent drug offenders, while emphasizing treatment instead of jail for lesser, nonviolent drug offenders (Brian Mooar, "War of Wills Over Drug Plan Intensifies in Montgomery," Washington Post, July 6, 1996, p. B1; Brian Mooar, "Sonner's Drug Policy Part of National Trend," Washington Post, July 17, 1996, p. B1; Jason T. Blair, "Maryland drug war takes new tack," Boston Sunday Globe, July 21, 1996, p. 15).

The policy, implemented on August 1, calls for enhanced prosecution in Circuit Court for drug cases involving: (1) "violence where there is possession of a gun or other lethal weapon," (2) "organized criminal activity," (3) "distribution. . . directed towards minors" or "employing minors in the distribution of drugs," (4) "drug dealing at schools," "recreation and community centers," or "high crime areas" where a comprehensive effort is being undertaken to address the problem, (5) defendants who are "career criminals" or "earning substantial income from drug trafficking," or (6) situations where "intelligence regarding other criminal activity can be obtained." Cases that do not meet one of these criteria will be prosecuted in the District Court.

Enhanced prosecution in Circuit Court includes: (1) "vertical prosecution by an experienced Circuit Court Assistant State's Attorney," (2) "presentation of the case before the Grand Jury," (3) "opposition to release on bail or else strict pre-trial monitoring with frequent urine testing," (4) "sentence recommendations that include incarceration," (5) "fast track prosecution," and (6) "plea agreements that require incarceration in jail."

Sonner's policy also emphasizes treatment for low-level drug offenders. "We will be trying to get as many people as possible into treatment," said Mr. Sonner. He added that a $600,000 two-year grant from the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area fund is expected to help pay for treatment programs. Chief judge of the District Court Cornelius J. Vaughey said he hopes treatment programs become available as an alternative to jail time. Before August, Maryland District Court Judges could only sentence drug offenders to jail or probation (Arlo Wagner, "Change of policy on drugs assailed," Washington Times, July 17, 1996, p. C5).

Sonner designed the prosecution strategy to complement the initiation of a drug court in Montgomery County that would replace traditional incarceration or probation with graduated alternative sanctions for a drug arrest. A first offense would result in assignment to a drug treatment program that includes counseling, daily reporting, periodic drug testing and court supervision. Claire McCaskill, Jackson County (Kansas City), Missouri prosecutor and chair of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said that her county's drug court and prosecution policy, similar to Montgomery County's, has been extremely successful. McCaskill said that fewer than 6 of the nearly 200 people in Jackson County that completed the drug court program have been arrested again. She also cited the $1,300 average cost per participant, compared with $25,000 a year for staying in the county jail.

Other supporters say that Sonner is just doing publicly what many other prosecutors across the country are doing quietly --that is, using prosecutorial discretion to get the best results with limited resources. "I think it is the de facto policy in many prosecutors' offices in the United States," said Michael Tonry, University of Minnesota law professor and author of Malign Neglect: Race, Crime and Punishment in America, a book that inspired Sonner's plan. Tonry added that if Sonner survives politically, "you might see prosecutors in other jurisdictions adopting the same kind of policy."

Minority leaders, including NAACP members, praised the policy for including directives for law enforcement to "assure racial justice" and to "comply with all laws and constitutional provisions." African American and Latino members of the community were invited to sit on a board that will monitor the results of Sonner's policy. Matthew J. Green, a Washington lawyer and member of the Montgomery County NAACP, applauded the measure saying, "you can't arrest everybody ... with limited resources, you've got to go after the people directly involved in hurting the most people."

The new policy prompted dissent from local officials who advocate zero-tolerance against drugs. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan branded the plan as ill-advised and one of his top aides, David Weaver, said the policy was synonymous with hanging signs proclaiming Montgomery County as a "partially drug-free community." "We're going to keep arresting drug dealers and drug users," Duncan said. He added, "If he chooses to drop those cases, that's his decision. We are going to keep track of every arrest we make and let the public know when he chooses to drop cases because he doesn't think they're important enough." Police Chief Carol A. Mehrling said her department will not support Sonner's plan.

Sonner said he expects "the police to agree with this policy and go forward with it, even though they didn't participate in adopting it." He also expressed some surprise by the criticism since Duncan and Mehrling declined his invitation to help draft the plan with other court, legal and law enforcement representatives. "I just don't think that they can complain about a policy that, quite frankly, is very rational and very reasonable, when they had the opportunity to participate and they chose not to," Sonner said. "We are trying to take a more rational and orderly approach to drug law enforcement."

For a copy of the strategy, contact the NewsBriefs. For more information, contact Andrew Sonner's office at: State's Attorney for Montgomery County, 50 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, MD 20850, Tel: (301) 217-7300, Fax: (301) 217-7441