MACHIAS, Maine — “It has been a privilege to be a judge,” Machias District Court Judge John V. Romei said recently, looking ahead to his retirement from the bench. “Just the thought that people would have enough trust in me to make such important decisions is truly humbling.”
Romei will be retiring in June after 21 years on the bench and more than 30 years as a lawyer. Gov. Paul LePage is expected to appoint his successor next week.
“I’m not burnt out,” Romei stressed. “My wife is retiring and I don’t want to be just a visitor in our grandchildren’s lives. I want to be a greater part of their lives.”
Romei began his career in Washington County as an assistant district attorney in 1975. He has applied for active-retired status, which would allow him to be called into service if needed.
Romei said he has experienced many changes Down East since he first walked into a courtroom. Being a sitting judge in Washington County seems different than in other areas of the state, Romei said, “because you are a judge 24/7. I have to admit, sometimes I carry a particular case home, but more often than not I’m able to leave it in the courtroom.”
The biggest change Romei said he has seen in his tenure is the impact of prescription narcotic abuse on communities and families and the success drug court is having in reducing recidivism.
“When I first started, I didn’t see any of this abuse but now it is pervasive,” he said.
Romei estimated that 95 percent of the crime he rules on is related to drug use.
“It is so appalling and many of [the abusers] are raising families. It impacts the criminal justice system, the protective custody system, families. And the young age that many people start on these drugs still really surprises me,’’ he said.
The drug court program is a distinct success story, Romei said.
“It is the most rewarding part of my job. It works. It gives people an opportunity to turn their lives around,” he said.
Romei was quick to add that the program participants are the ones who do all the hard work.
“The rest of us are support,” he said.
Romei explained that in drug court, abusers sign a one-year contract after they have been convicted of a drug crime. If they complete the program, they graduate and avoid jail. If they do not, they are incarcerated. The program includes group therapy, intense case management with a social worker and the judge, random drug testing and home visits.
“The focus is on getting clean. Getting clean is their job, to be productive. That part is frustrating for me because there are so few job opportunities in Washington County, particularly with a drug record. If they can’t find a job, we require community service,” Romei said.
Sometimes the volunteer work results in employment.
“There are a lot of people with a lot of different issues out there but Washington County has the lowest recidivism rate of any drug court in the state,” he said. “When you save someone, that means there is one less person in prison. Even if the cost of incarceration is $30,000 per case, there are times we’re handling 20 people or more in drug court.”
The savings can be impressive, he said, not just in prison costs but in the actual redemption of lives.
Romei said the participants express great pride as they progress and graduate from the program.
“It almost feels parental to me. They don’t want to disappoint me,” he said.
Romei said he bonds with many of those drug abusers while they are in the program.
“We go ice fishing. We go on hikes,” he said. “They learn to see that you can have plenty of fun without being high.”
Romei said that when the idea of drug court was first presented to him, he stood solidly against it.
“I didn’t see what business the court had being a social worker. But I was wrong,” he said. “They are held immediately accountable and there are rewards. It is a good balance.”
He said he was not sure that drug court would be fitting for every abuser, but “for years we have been putting nonviolent, addicted people in cages and we expect them to become different. Well, guess what? They don’t.”
Romei said that future needs of Washington County include a safe house for transitional convictees.
“We can’t even accept someone in the drug court program if they are homeless. There are a lot of addicted young moms out there with children. I don’t know how they manage,’’ he said.
Romei also said that with the depressed economy, he has been seeing a lot more economy-based crimes in the last few years.
“People are stealing, shoplifting to survive,” he said. “They aren’t taking CDs or cosmetics, they are taking food, medicine, gas, fuel oil, firewood. We call it subsistence theft.”
From boundary disputes to fender benders to serious violent crimes, Romei said sitting on the bench has been far from boring.
“It has been so very interesting,” he said. “You need your common sense and life experiences to play a role. You need to find the facts and what’s been proven. You need to evaluate the credibility of the evidence and testimony. It’s never been dull.”