Bill offers pilot proposal to replace, build on drug court closing in Bangor

Posted Oct. 30, 2011, at 1:33 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 30, 2011, at 3:54 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A proposal submitted by a local legislator would create a program for drug users similar to the one in place for drunken drivers.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Sara Stevens, D-Bangor, is intended to implement a pilot project that would replace and build on the work done by the Penobscot County Drug Court.

That program stopped accepting clients last month after it was announced funding would be eliminated when the new fiscal year begins July 1, 2012. Money from the Bangor-based program will be transferred to the Co-occurring Disorder Court, also called the mental health court, in Kennebec County, Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the court system, said last month.

“I think this [bill] is a great starting project,” Stevens said last week. “It’s an opportunity to make sure folks here get the treatment they need.”

The idea was brought to Stevens by Jim LaPierre, executive director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, which offers substance abuse counseling.

“HGS envisions this program as a common sense, proactive approach to the worsening problem of drug abuse and addiction in Maine,” he wrote in a three-page outline of the proposed project. “It is clear that most traditional approaches have failed to prevent the continued loss of human lives and the continued costs to the taxpayers of our state.”

Higher Ground’s plan would require that an individual charged with a civil or criminal violation of the state’s drug laws undergo a mandatory assessment for substance abuse at his or her own expense. That evaluation would be similar to the post-conviction evaluation offered in the Driver Education and Evaluation Programs, or, DEEP, administered by the Office of Substance Abuse in the Department of Health and Human Services.

DEEP is required by state law for some offenders convicted of operating under the influence. It is a weekend program where people convicted of drunken driving undergo a risk assessment for re-offending and are educated on the risks of driving while intoxicated.

It is paid for by offenders and run by providers, including High Ground, that have contracts with the Office of Substance Abuse. LaPierre said his proposal would be nearly identical to DEEP.

Penobscot County Deputy District Attorney Michael Roberts, who has been a member of the Penobscot County Drug Court team since its inception 10 years ago, reviewed the proposal last week. He called it “well intentioned, but not very realistic.”

While DEEP works with individuals who have been convicted of drunken driving, Stevens’ bill calls for defendants charged with a drug offense to undergo an evaluation for the risk of substance abuse. It also suggests that probation officers monitor defendants, which the department is not set up to do, according to Roberts.

“I think it would be a better post-conviction program than a preconviction program,” the prosecutor said Friday.

Roberts said he was not sure a preconviction program was constitutional.

LaPierre said it was important for a judge to have the results of assessments in determining what periods of incarceration, probation and/or fines to impose at sentencings.

The cost of a pilot program in Penobscot County has not been determined.

“This proposal would cost the state essentially nothing,” LaPierre said. “As with DEEP, individuals would bear nearly all of the costs.”

Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has submitted a companion bill that would allow state officials to explore ways to explore funding for the Penobscot County Drug Court and to expand the availability of the Drug Court program.

“We know that when done effectively, drug court can be more effective than incarceration,” Berry said Sunday. “This bill would look at various methods of doing that.”

Stevens and Berry submitted their bills as emergency legislation. Whether they considered during the second session beginning in January is up to the 10-member Legislative Council, which is made up of party leaders.

The council is scheduled to meet Monday to consider which of the 300 bills submitted by lawmakers will be considered.

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