April 20, 2018
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Use of $1.1M in drug funds spurs debate

By Mal Leary, Maine Public

AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s top law enforcement officer has found herself at odds with lawmakers over how to spend the $1.1 million Maine has received as the result of a federal law that distributes the assets seized in drug cases.

Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Friday told Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan that some of the drug forfeiture money must go for prevention programs — not just for expanded law enforcement efforts that she has proposed.

“In my mind we have both a supply and demand issue here,” said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, co-chairwoman of the panel. “I frankly would be unwilling to go down to Appropriations with a purely supply side focus.”

She told Jordan she understands there are limits set by federal law on how the forfeiture money can be used, but stressed that $150,683 is eligible to be spent outside of law enforcement.

“And I like the idea that how that is spent should be decided through a RFP [request for proposal] and not decided on what information we have today,” Haskell said.

She agreed with most of the priorities Jordan proposed including upgrading and replacing several types of equipment used by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Computer Crimes Unit, but was not enthusiastic about a new $300,000 program aimed at organized crime involvement in drug trafficking.

“This is entirely new, and we are just seeing this for the first time,” she said.

Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney developed the new proposal that would target mid- to upper-level cocaine smugglers and wholesalers. He said the agency only has the funding to pursue street-level traffickers and the new funds would expand the efforts of the agency to disrupt the drug trade in Maine.

“The money would be used to purchase evidence and information,” he said. “And there is overtime as the result of the nature of these investigations and the travel costs.”

Haskell said while the effort may be worthwhile, she questioned whether the agency should be starting a new program using one-time funds. She said the next session of the Legislature will face further budget problems, and she doubted the program would get continued funding.

She had bipartisan support among panel members to recommend to the Appropriations Committee that some of the money be used for prevention.

“I think that is fair to use some of this money for prevention,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting. “But, I think we should focus on our teenagers. I don’t think we are doing enough of that in our state.”

But Jordan said she would oppose taking any money from the MDEA proposals for prevention efforts.

“Just so you know, I will be suggesting that if they want funding for prevention, it should come from other areas,” Jordan said.

She identified $123,000 for prevention by eliminating $75,000 for evidence storage, and reducing the number of field spectrometers to four from the original eight that was requested by MDEA.

The panel heard from two groups seeking whatever prevention money is available from the forfeiture funds.

District Attorney Everett Fowle, president of the Maine Prosecutors Association, and Walter McKee, past president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, both endorsed some funding for the Co-Occurring Disorders Court. The court, which handles some defendants with documented mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, is based in Augusta but handles cases from all over the state.

“Virtually all of our clients would be in prison, were they not in our court,” Fowle said. He said the court had saved the state at least a million dollars in prison costs. He said with federal funding ending, lawmakers should consider using some of the drug forfeiture money to keep it operating.

Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills helped found the court and is the presiding justice. She told lawmakers that it has been successful on many levels.

“I have great respect for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, but we have got to stop the demand, and we are doing that in this court,” she said.

Another request for funding was made by Elder Justice Partners, a collaborative of 17 government and nonprofit agencies that serves Maine seniors. They also have a federal grant that is running out and sought a portion of the drug forfeiture funds to help their efforts in training law enforcement in dealing with prescription drug diversion that often involves seniors.

Jordan predicted there would be other groups seeking prevention money when the Appropriations Committee considers the issue on Tuesday.

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