The chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court urged lawmakers Tuesday to fund a comprehensive approach to combating the state’s opioid crisis, even though that funding wouldn’t necessarily flow to the judicial branch that she oversees.
During her annual address to a joint session of the Maine Legislature, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said Maine courts won’t be able to expand the programs they have to help people struggling to overcome addiction without an investment in the services that are available outside the courts.
“All of the funding necessary to respond to the addiction and mental health needs of the public should be focused on the wide range of necessary community-based services that are not within the judicial branch budget,” Saufley said.
Saufley urged lawmakers to focus on expanding access to mental health and addiction recovery services as well as medical and dental care. She also listed safe and sober housing; case managers, coaches and mentors for those in recovery; and job training and education opportunities for those trying to turn their lives around as needs.
“The bottom line is this,” Saufley said. “The judicial branch has a protocol in place that allows the creation of new addiction and mental health dockets as soon as the key components are in place in your communities, and you need not focus that funding on the judicial branch.”
The state’s court system runs a number of specialty courts — including the drug, veterans and mental health courts — for offenders with addictions and other challenges as an alternative to jail sentences. They depend on connecting participants with services provided in their local communities.
Gov. Janet Mills attended Saufley’s address and said she would work “collaboratively and supportively” with the court system, especially to combat the opioid epidemic.
Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, agreed with the chief justice on the need for community services to support people in specialty courts.
“The state needs a lot of services after eight years of rollback under the previous administration,” said Cardone, who serves on the Legislature’s judiciary committee. “We’ll have to see where our priorities are and where the money is.”
Saufley also focused her speech on three areas on technology upgrades for the court system, the implementation of a digital case management and e-filing system to replace the court’s longtime paper-based file system, and changes to the handling of criminal and juvenile cases.