January 29, 2020
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High recidivism rate spells end to Bangor drug court

Kate Collins | BDN
Kate Collins | BDN
Jody Veillette, a 2009 graduate of Penobscot County's Adult Drug Treatment Court, discusses the program in her Brewer home on Wednesday, September 21, 2011.

BANGOR, Maine — Jody Veillette’s life was out of control four years ago.

Her husband had lost his job, which left the family without health insurance and the money for medication Veillette, now 42, needed to control her Crohn’s disease.

To control the pain that often comes with the intestinal disorder, the Brewer woman turned to oxycodone obtained from a relative who had a prescription for the powerfully addictive painkiller. When that ran out, Veillette, who had no criminal record, obtained it illegally and wound up facing three years in prison.

Instead, she went into the Penobscot County Adult Drug Treatment Court. She graduated in December 2009 and now is holding down full- and part-time jobs while attending Beal College.

“Drug court was just a blessing,” Veillette said Tuesday.

The kind of help she received through the criminal justice system will end next year when the Bangor-based court shuts down. The people who are in the program will continue to participate but no new defendants are being admitted, according to Michael Roberts, deputy district attorney for Penobscot County. Roberts has been involved in the program since it was initiated in Bangor 10 years ago.

The state’s five other drug court programs will continue, as will the year-old Family Drug Court in Bangor. The other adult drug courts serve Cumberland, York, Hancock, Androscoggin and Washington counties.

Most of the funding for the drug court program comes from the Office of Substance Abuse, a division of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The program was implemented a decade ago with money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which came from the state’s share of a settlement with the tobacco industry, Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the court system, said in statement issued Wednesday.

Since the funding source for drug courts shifted to the General Fund a few years ago, the amount of money available has been reduced. The drug court program for juveniles was eliminated a few years ago.

Funding from the drug court in Penobscot County will be transferred to the Co-occurring Disorder Court, also called the mental health court, in Kennebec County, according to Lynch. Nearly $85,000 for substance abuse treatment and about $33,600 to cover the salary of a case manager previously allocated to the drug court in Bangor now will be used by the Augusta court.

The mental health court works with defendants with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders who have histories of frequent incarceration. It has been funded with federal money that runs out next year, Lynch said.

“Early analysis indicates that the [Co-occurring Disorder Court] has the lowest post-discharge recidivism rate among all the drug courts in Maine,” she said. “The [court] will soon lose its federal funding, and the decision was made to make funds available to this very effective program.”

The Penobscot County drug court was eliminated because its recidivism rates are the highest in the state, according to Lynch. The decision to eliminate it was a joint one made by the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Office of Substance Abuse, she said.

Guy Cousins of the Office of Substance Abuse said the preliminary data used to make the decision are part of a report to be released in few weeks. He and Lynch declined to release the data before the report’s publication.

Cousins also said that a 2006 report done by members of the sociology department at the University of Southern Maine ranked the drug court in Bangor second from the bottom for successful outcomes. York County’s drug court was last.

The report suggested that drug courts in other counties had much lower recidivism rates than Penobscot and York counties.

“These findings suggest positive program effects with fewer adult drug court participants being re-arrested than a comparison group with program graduates being the the least likely to re-offend overall,” the 2006 report stated in the section titled “Outcome Evaluation.” “These findings are consistent across sites with exception of Penobscot County, where we find the 12-month post-program recidivism rate to be significantly higher than the other four courts and slightly higher than the comparison group of offenders traditionally adjudicated.”

The recidivism rate in Penobscot County then was 28.6 percent, according to the report, compared with the 25.7 percent of defendants who were sentenced to prison or jail terms.

The drug court in Hancock County was not in operation when the study was completed.

Cousins said that several years ago, Penobscot and York counties were offered suggestions on how to improve their outcomes. York implemented them and its outcomes improved; Penobscot did not and its outcomes continued to languish, he said.

Lynch said that recidivism rates were not the only factors considered in making the decision to close the drug court serving Penobscot County. The higher than average turnover of a treatment provider and the availability and support of other community programs and governmental resources in the county also were considered, she said.

Shutting down the drug court in Bangor as the city and county face a mounting problem with the abuse of bath salts, which recently was criminalized, seems short-sighted, Roberts said.

“We certainly have no shortage of people with substance abuse issues in Penobscot County,” he said Tuesday, “and the impact of bath salts we are just beginning to understand. There are a limited number of treatment facilities here.

“This decision doesn’t leave us with a lot of options beyond incarceration. I haven’t seen any addicts come out of incarceration ready to be a new person,” Roberts continued. “I have seen people who have had a lifetime of substance abuse come out of drug court [ready and able to do just that].”

Veillette said that the structure of the drug court program and the fact that it helped her deal with more issues than just her addiction helped her turn her life around.

“I think it is just a shame that more people won’t be able to go through this program,” she said of the decision to shut down the Penobscot County drug court. “Jail is just a temporary fix. People will still have all the underlying problems that led to their addiction after they’re incarcerated.”

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