All Jeannie Chapman remembers from her overdose was drawing the heroin into the needle, sticking it in her arm and then waking up in an ambulance. Though she had come close to dying, she pleaded, unsuccessfully, with the paramedics not to take her to the hospital because using drugs violated her court-ordered probation.
Her probation was the result of the darkest point in a decades-long battle with drug use: 15 months earlier, on July 25, 2016, she had struck a man with her car in a downtown Bangor crosswalk while he was playing the viral phone app game Pokemon Go. It resulted in a felony assault conviction on her record and her name all over the internet.
Indeed, a probation officer was waiting to arrest Chapman when she left the emergency room in Bangor later on the night of her overdose, Oct. 12, 2017. The next day, she was released from the Penobscot County Jail and ordered to enroll in substance use counseling. But the idea of total abstinence made her panic, and she was back in trouble with the law less than a month later for backing her car into a ditch with a blood alcohol level of 0.09 percent, just over the legal limit, according to a police report.
Addiction and its consequences send waves of people like Chapman, 39, into Maine’s criminal justice system, where punitive sanctions such as jail can leave them worse off or simply fail to address the underlying disease of addiction.
On June 26, Chapman graduated from the Penobscot County Adult Drug Treatment Court, one of eight such diversion programs within Maine’s criminal justice system that blends court supervision with treatment. The program has gained widespread support as a way to combat an opioid crisis that kills about one Mainer a day, as it nearly did Chapman.
The selective program admits people like Chapman, who are considered a risk to public safety because of a substance use disorder. They usually face the same choice that she did: graduate, or go to prison. Modeled on national guidelines and based on social science research, participants advance through five phases of treatment and supervision — each with less intensive requirements, but more personal accountability, than the last. The fastest someone can complete all five is in just over a year. Between 50 and 60 percent of people admitted each year — about 50 people statewide — are expected to graduate.
“[Drug courts are] certainly the most innovative and far-reaching approach that [the courts] have,” to addressing addictions, said Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, who oversees Maine’s eight “treatment” courts (two of which are specifically for veterans and people who also have diagnosed mental illness).
“The focus is on rehabilitation, not incarceration,” she said.
The concept is not without criticism. Though an analysis by the firm Hornby Zeller Associates in 2015 found that drug court graduates are less likely to recidivate than their jailed counterparts, mirroring national trends, the dated study left key questions about the program unanswered, such as why some participants succeed over others. What’s more, the state does not formally track the outcomes of those who go through the program, which means Maine’s debate over efficacy suffers from a lack of critical information and analysis.
Critics, like the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, say that providing a therapeutic response to addiction, a disease, is inherently in conflict with a program that uses a carrot-and-stick approach to helping people recover.
The ACLU has also raised concerns over the requirement that defendants must plead guilty to gain entry to the program. That could infringe on their due process rights if they feel pressure to resolve their case in order to receive treatment services, according to the organization’s policy director, Oamshri Amarasingham.
But it’s the potential in a story like Chapman’s that shows why many in Maine — including the judiciary, a bipartisan group of legislators and criminal justice officials in Maine’s midcoast — would like to expand them.
Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.
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