Pubdate: Tue, 06 Feb 2001
Source: Bangor Daily News (ME)
Copyright: 2001 Bangor Daily News Inc.
Contact:  491 Main St., PO Box 1329, Bangor, ME 04402-1329
Author: Renee Ordway, Of the NEWS Staff
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)
Bookmark: (Oxycontin)


BANGOR - From his seat on the bench, Chief Superior Court Justice Andrew 
Mead sometimes feels as if he's playing out a scene from "The Emperor's New 
Clothes." "We sort of pretend to have a meaningful way to change behaviors, 
but, in reality, my two options are sending somebody to jail or putting 
them into the terribly overburdened probation system," the judge said from 
his Bangor office recently. Though the faces of those presiding have 
changed over the past several decades, the relationship between substance 
abuse and criminal behavior has not, and, like judges before him, Mead 
often shakes his head in frustration at his inability to truly make a 
difference or change a person's behavior. Now with nearly $1 million in 
money from the tobacco settlement fund, judges, lawyers and substance abuse 
specialists are preparing to launch Maine's first statewide drug court to 
try to help addicts get the help they need. Drug courts offer an 
alternative to incarceration for certain offenders. Qualifying offenders 
receive closely monitored counseling and treatment.

"The drug court movement is a phenomenon that is sweeping the nation and 
having a phenomenal effect," Judge Jeffrey Tauber of Alexandria, Va., 
president of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, told the 
Legislature's Judiciary Committee a year ago.

His remarks, along with those of Maine Chief Justice Daniel Wathen in his 
State of the Judiciary speech last February, helped win the Legislature's 
approval to use $750,000 of the tobacco settlement money to establish an 
adult drug court. It will be one of more than 600 drug courts now operating 
throughout the country. The drug court in Portland is already operating, 
and courts in Machias-Calais, Bangor, Lewiston-Rumford and York-Biddeford 
are supposed to be up and running by March 1. "We won't meet that March 
deadline," Mead said last week, just one day after a meeting of the 
committee charged with setting up the Bangor region's drug court. "We may 
have something in place by March 1st, but we won't be fully functional 
until late spring.

"This has really got to be a collaborative effort because it is approved by 
the Legislature, the Governor's Office has the money, and we are supposed 
to set it up," Mead continued. "It appears there will be a great deal of 
individual tailoring to each [drug court] location, and it is up to local 
committees to establish resources and forge alliances between law 
enforcement, care providers, the community and the courts."

Each program is expected to serve a set number of offenders. The Bangor 
court is expected to serve about 40 people.

Despite some organizational delays, Mead thinks the drug court is "an 
absolutely great idea," but he knows that not every defendant will be an 
appropriate candidate for the court.

Drug court will actually occur in courtrooms in either District Court or 
Superior Court, Mead said. An offender may be identified as a candidate for 
the program by either a defense attorney, a prosecutor or a judge.

The offender will go through a standardized drug treatment test by 
substance abuse providers. In Bangor, services will be provided by 
counselors at Wellspring and Acadia Hospital. An offender who is deemed 
appropriate for drug court must agree to plead guilty to the crime they are 
accused of.

"One thing people should know is that this hinges on the defendant 
acknowledging guilt and that they have a problem right off the bat," said 
Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy.

The judge gets the final say on whether the offender is a good candidate 
for drug court. If so, the offender is enrolled in an appropriate substance 
abuse treatment program, Mead said.

"It may be strictly outpatient or it may involve an in-house treatment 
followed by outpatient treatment. I think that's going to be determined on 
a case-by-case basis," said the judge.

Regardless of the treatment plan, the defendant will be required to undergo 
routine drug testing (who provides the testing has yet to be determined) 
and must appear in front of the judge once a week.

At the heart of the drug court system is a rewards and punishment incentive 
program. Failing a drug test or not appearing for counseling or in court 
means the judge can order the defendant thrown in jail for a few days. 
Because defendants have not yet been sentenced, failing the program means 
they go back in front of the judge to be sentenced on the original crimes. 
On the other hand, judges can use incentives and rewards for progress made, 
Mead said. Almy has "positive feelings" about the new court.

"It means rethinking everything we do with drug offenders," said the 
prosecutor, who added that defendants eligible for drug court might not be 
facing drug charges.

"Drug offenders steal. They aren't just selling drugs. The offense may be 
theft, forgery. For example, this heroin and OxyContin problem we're 
seeing. A lot of people addicted to this stuff are stealing and writing bad 
checks to get the money they need to buy the drugs. Some of these cases 
would be perfect for the drug court," Almy said.

What about violent offenders? You might say the jury is still out.

Some argue that it makes sense to allow some violent offenders into the 
program because it is the substance abuse that prompts the violence. The 
number of domestic violence cases, for example, could be reduced if the 
violent offender were no longer a substance abuser.

Almy appears willing to entertain the idea but is not committed to signing 
on yet. "I'd have to take a very careful look at that," he said. "You've 
got to be very careful when it comes to handling domestic violence cases. 
You know not every drug abuser is violent, and drug abuse certainly is not 
at the core of all domestic violence cases. I'd have to hear a lot more 
about that before agreeing that violent offenders be made eligible for this."

Though quickly acknowledging that there are a lot of bugs to be worked out 
and a lot of questions to be answered as to exactly how the program will 
work, Mead admittedly is excited about the prospect of being able to offer 
real help to some of the defendants who come before him.

"I hear that it is quite intense. These people come in front of you once a 
week. Judges get to know them quite well - their families and where they 
work and their personal problems. When someone makes it through the 
program, I think everyone benefits, especially society," he said.

The $750,000 that the Office of Substance Abuse has to fund the program is 
for one year and will include the cost of hiring and training case managers 
to keep track of each defendant.

"Where will the money come from next year? I assume it will be subject for 
review and based on how we do this year," Mead said.
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