Grant boosts prosecution of drug crimes

Posted May 17, 2009, at 9:26 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A grant from the federal government will enable state officials to expand the prosecution of drug crimes and shore up investigations by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that Maine will get more than $6 million in federal funds for public safety programs, including additional drug and computer crimes prosecutors.

“This vital funding will help fight crime and build safer communities,” he said. “We look forward to working with Maine to address these criminal justice goals.”

The grant to the state is part of $4 billion allocated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for law enforcement and includes funds that local governments can apply for from the state allocation. More than a third of the money will be passed through to local communities.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said the federal funds will fill a huge need in her office as the state has been reducing spending as the result of its revenue shortfall.

“This will allow me to fill two vacant drug prosecutor positions in my office,” she said. “This will help sustain the Maine drug enforcement effort so that they continue doing what they are doing so well.”

Mills said in addition to providing the prosecutor positions, the grant provides funds to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to continue their investigations and undercover work aimed at curtailing the illegal use of drugs.

“We were looking at cuts without the federal funds,” said Public Safety Commissioner Ann Jordan. “This allows the MDEA to continue to do their job arresting those involved in the illegal use of drugs.”

She said the funding will allow continuation of the undercover agents who are crucial to the investigations of drug trafficking. In addition, she said, six existing drug prosecution district attorneys will continue working as a result of the grant.

Jordan agreed with Mills that drug diversion — the theft and trafficking of prescription drugs — is a major problem and will be a focus of enforcement efforts.

“We have a major and growing problem in this state,” Mills said. “I plan to have drug diversion a major focus of the drug prosecutors in my office.”

Jordan said the new computer crimes prosecutor is sorely needed with the increasing number of computer-related crimes. She said the state received a $455,000 grant from the federal government last month under a different program aimed at Internet crimes against children.

“That allowed us to keep a person on we were going to lose and the equivalent of 1.6 new investigators,” she said.

The computer crimes unit will use the model the MDEA has developed, which uses local police detectives, with the federal funds used to pay the costs of both staff and equipment.

Lawmakers on both the Appropriations Committee and the Criminal Justice Committee were pleased with the additional federal funds. Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is the co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee and was co-chairman of Criminal Justice in the last session.

“Given the condition of our state’s economy and the difficulties we are having trying to close this budget, this is good news,” he said.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said that adding the prosecutors is crucial to tackling the problem. He said that simply adding investigators without the prosecutors would increase the already significant backlog of cases.

With the increasing number of cases being referred to the computer crimes unit, the next Legislature will be under great pressure to continue the positions with state money, if not further increase the size of the unit, Gerzofsky said.

Jordan indicated the shored-up computer crimes unit would not lose focus on the growing problem of Internet child pornography.

“The focus is certainly going to be the crimes against kids,” Jordan said, “but the additional resources will also help with other computer crimes like embezzlement.”

She said Congress is considering additional appropriations in both the drug and computer areas as part of the regular budget deliberations.

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