We all understand that state government must work with less money, but activities that actually make a positive difference in people’s lives and ultimately save state resources — like the drug courts — should be a priority. The drug courts are a stellar example of government working smarter, getting more bang for its buck.
There is an overwhelming body of evidence that shows that early education and intervention saves the state the high social and financial costs of responding to crime and meting out justice. Children who get pre-kindergarten education have far better odds of staying out of the criminal justice system than those who do not get such education. Drug abusers who get treatment rather than incarceration are more likely to get free of their addictions and not be tempted to commit crimes to feed their habits.
Because of these measurable outcomes, all the drug courts in Maine should continue. Yet the state has decided to cut off funding for the Penobscot County Adult Drug Treatment Court in Bangor, citing its lowest rate of success among the six drug courts. The question the Department of Health and Human Services should consider is not which of the courts is most effective, but rather which approach to the horrors of drug addiction works.
The money saved by closing the Bangor drug court will be applied to the Co-occuring Disorder Court, also known as the mental health court, in Kennebec County. There is some irony in this move, because this court also represents an innovative, effective way to address a vexing criminal justice problem by treating it differently than burglary or assault. It addresses criminal defendants with mental illness — and often substance abuse problems exacerbating the illness. The court has a high success rate, keeping those defendants from re-offending.
The drug court operates on a very simple principle, one most of us would recognize from childhood: admit the mistake, prove the willingness and ability to behave, and reward follows.
People accused of possessing drugs are offered the opportunity to plead guilty, and have that plea and sentencing held in abeyance while they attend counseling sessions. If, after a period of months, they show that they remain drug-free, the sentencing is dropped.
The drug courts were funded through the Fund for a Healthy Maine, the money Maine received from the tobacco lawsuit settlement. That money has been shifted into the state’s general fund.
As Michael Roberts, deputy district attorney for Penobscot County notes, “We certainly have no shortage of people with substance abuse problems.” And the effect of the synthetic drug bath salts is just beginning to be felt.
“This decision doesn’t leave us with a lot of options beyond incarceration,” Mr. Roberts said. “I haven’t seen any addicts come out of incarceration ready to be a new person.”
And that’s the reason — presumably — substances like cocaine, heroin and bath salts are illegal in the first place. The law intervenes to keep people from ruining their lives, because when they do, they hurt all of us.The governor and Legislature must not lose sight of this goal, and make financial decisions based on what works.