June 23, 2018
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Maine chief justice proposes expanding drug courts to address opioid crisis

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Updated:

The chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday recommended in her annual address to lawmakers the creation of a “full wrap-around drug court” as an alternative to traditional drug courts.

Leigh I. Saufley said Gov. Paul LePage has given his blessing to a proposed pilot project that would include immediate and extensive access to addiction treatment, mental health treatment, sober housing, job training, transportation, family-related services and long-term followup.

“The stark reality is: People are dying; families are hurting; communities feel helpless,” Saufley told legislators. “We know that we are not alone — this is happening in many other states. But we should not sugar-coat it. What we, in government, are doing is not enough. We have to try harder. We need to match our own sense of urgency with rapid access to treatment and seriously comprehensive followup.”

Her announcement of the project drew a standing ovation from lawmakers.

“If we are able to fund this project, it must include thorough evaluations

and rigorous application of nationally recognized best practices,” Saufley told a joint session of the House and Senate. “Fairly quickly, we will learn whether a more comprehensive approach to addiction recovery yields better outcomes. It will not be inexpensive, but the long-term consequences of failing to find an answer to this crisis are beyond measuring.”

The pilot program, if funded, would use the Veterans’ Court as a model, Saufley said after her speech. That court is based in Augusta and serves 12 veterans at a time, offering services funded by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs that aren’t available through traditional drug courts, such as job training.

Following her speech, Saufley estimated the new court would cost about $1 million per year for the expanded services. The cost of the traditional adult drug courts is between $150,000 and $200,000 per year, she said at a press conference after the address.

Currently, nonviolent drug offenders may apply for admission to drug courts in several Maine counties after pleading guilty to charges. Participants are overseen by a team and must agree to frequent drug testing and counseling, regular check-ins with a probation officer, and to seeking employment, among other requirements. Failing a drug test can result in sanctions such as jail time.

Members of the Legislature’s appropriations committee from both sides of the aisle said they thought the new proposal was a good idea but were unsure if it would be funded this year.

Saufley said the number of overdose deaths in Maine last year — 418 — along with the number of drug-affected babies born in 2017 — 952 — and the doses of Narcan administered — 2,503 — show that not enough is being done to address Maine’s opioid crisis. The chief justice also said the court filings in certain cases are evidence of how drug use impacts families.

“In 2011, 522 child protection petitions were filed by the Department of Health and Human Services in Maine courts,” Saufley said in her address. “By 2015 that number had almost doubled, rising to 1,002 petitions, and in 2017, there were 937 new petitions filed.”

Saufley also urged lawmakers to expand drug treatment courts into rural counties, including Aroostook County, where they have not been funded.

Adult drug courts operate in six of Maine’s 16 counties — Androscoggin, Cumberland, Hancock, Penobscot, Washington and York counties — but serve a relatively small number of people, she said.

“Drug courts do not currently reach enough people, and the

success rates remain challenging,” Saufley told the Legislature. “Of the 254 people participating in drug courts last year, 45 defendants, almost 20 percent, had to be terminated from the program before the year was over.”

Other issues Saufley focused on were the infrastructure of the court system, including the replacement and/or renovation of aging courthouses, entry screening, and the transition from a paper case filing system to a digital one, set to begin later this year with the violations bureau that handles traffic and speeding tickets.

The chief justice also made public that she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year but has recovered. Saufley, who uncharacteristically wept as she thanked her husband and parents for their support, urged Maine women to get mammograms.

“Schedule it now,” she said. “Your family will thank you, and you will be able to continue to be an important part of this wonderful world. Get your mammograms done — really, I mean it. Don’t make me enter an order. Just do it.”

The judiciary has been better funded for most of the LePage administration than it was under previous administration. When Democrat John Baldacci was governor, Saufley often spoke in her annual addresses about the difficulty the courts faced in delivering justice when the system was understaffed because of funding shortfalls.

Saufley graduated from the University of Maine and the University of Maine Law School. She worked for a decade in the Maine attorney general’s office before being appointed a district court judge by Gov. John McKernan in 1990. Three years later, the Republican governor appointed her to the Superior Court bench.

Gov. Angus King, an independent, elevated her to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 1997. She was sworn in as Maine’s first female chief justice in 2001. In 2016, Gov. Paul LePage reappointed Saufley to the position.

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