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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.
Chapman’s addiction to drugs took hold at a time when drug courts first appeared in Maine in 2001. She was raised by a single father in an impoverished household on Indian Township, the Passamaquaddy reservation in Washington County, and by her early 20s, was working jobs at places such as Dunkin’ Donuts to feed a $700 daily habit that often landed her in jail for crimes including theft and assault.
She tried to get help twice — first, at an inpatient facility in Windham in her mid-20s, and more recently, by getting a prescription for Suboxone, which mitigates cravings and symptoms from opioid withdrawal, around 2014. She relapsed both times.
Then, in July 2016, she hit the Pokemon Go player after a day drinking at the beach, setting in motion the events that would bring her to her last stop before prison: drug court.
The Penobscot County drug court was re-established the next year, in 2017. (A prior version of the program lost funding in 2011. The latest version has been revamped.) It has slots for about 25 people at a time. Compliance with the program is technically a condition of the defendant’s probation.
Before she could begin, Chapman first had to complete a 9-week substance use counseling program behind bars at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility in Augusta, called the CARA program. Still, when she was admitted to drug court March 12, 2018, she wondered if she could get away with using as she had on previous probations. She quickly learned the answer was no.
“They own your life,” Chapman said.
For the first 16 weeks, she had to attend three hours of intensive outpatient treatment three days a week at Wellspring in Bangor. She then started a combination of individual substance use counseling and Moral Recognition Therapy, or group counseling sessions that addressed her antisocial behaviors. Maine drug court participants with a diagnosis of opioid use disorder are allowed to take prescriptions for medications used to treat opioid addiction, which are prohibited or strictly limited in other settings within Maine’s correctional system and, controversially, banned in drug courts elsewhere in the country.
Chapman thought the counseling sessions were silly at first. Sitting at her kitchen table in Bangor, she rolled her eyes while recounting some of the activities, such as drawing pictures in a workbook. But as weeks turned to months, she began to understand more about how her upbringing affected the course of her adult life. Like Chapman, most people in drug court are dealing with deep histories of trauma, said Travis Lenfest, who manages outpatient programming at Wellspring.
All the while, Chapman was drug tested regularly and at random, had to abide by a curfew and called in daily to Maine Pretrial Services, an organization that provides case management services to drug court clients. Hannah, Chapman’s case manager, turned out to be more than someone just keeping tabs on her whereabouts. She was there to help with nonaddiction-related problems, vouching for Chapman when she got rejected from an apartment because of her criminal record, for example. Lenfest said the case management services are a feature of drug court that is unlike other substance use treatment services in Bangor.
Over time, Chapman found the structure more helpful than stressful. She was also taking medication for her anxiety, which helped her control her stress and aggression.
These daily points of contact also provided a portrait of Chapman’s progress to the team overseeing the program, which, in addition to her case manager and someone from Wellspring, included a prosecutor, defense attorney, Bangor police officer, probation officer and District Court Judge Charles Budd.
“No one believes the team is there to help you when you’re first there,” Chapman said. “You really don’t know that until you screw up.”
With input from the team, Budd decides how to sanction people when they violate program rules — by skipping a curfew, for instance, or relapsing and failing a drug test. They can range from tighter curfews to community service to more mandated substance use counseling.
In rare cases, Budd said, a sanction can be a few days in jail. This is the area of the program in which the punishment is in greatest tension with a therapeutic approach to recovery. Some have noted that for those taking addiction medications that are banned in Maine jails, a jail sanction could force someone with opioid use disorder into withdrawal.
The severity of a drug court sanction usually depends on how honest the person has been about his or her behavior in addition to the severity of the violation itself. For Chapman, learning to put her faith in two men with badges was not easy. By chance, the probation officer who belongs to the drug court team, Eric Legassie, also arrested her after her overdose. The program’s police officer, Bangor patrolman Christopher Blanchard, placed her in handcuffs after the Pokemon Go hit-and-run.
By getting to know her over time, Chapman felt like both men respected her and wanted her to succeed. It was a profound feeling, she said. Then, in February, it was put to the test. She relapsed about two months before she was supposed to graduate.
She had otherwise been moving through the phases of the program without stumbling. She had been sober for more than a year, was working six days a week cleaning hotels and had organized a drug court support group on Facebook, so people could reach out to one another when they needed help, such as a ride or leads on a job.
But the idea of losing the structure of drug court court filled her with anxiety. In late February, a friend asked if she wanted to do meth, and she used.
That day, she did not answer a few calls from Legassie, the probation officer, which made him suspicious, she said. Soon after, Blanchard was notified that she was spotted leaving a house in Brewer where drugs were often sold. The men met her at her apartment and asked if she had used, she said. She lied, until she learned she would be drug-tested in the morning, she said.
The last time Chapman violated her probation by using, she went to jail. This time, she had to check in with her case manager three times a day, instead of two. That third call often reminded her of her slip and made her feel guilty, and she beat herself up about her relapse over the phone with her father, who told her to just keep going. Through Wellspring, she started to see a mental health counselor to help her deal with her anxiety in addition to her substance use counseling, and that made a big difference.
“She sometimes refers to herself as the ‘Pokemon Go’ girl,” Blanchard said two days before Chapman’s graduation in June, recalling how standoffish she had been when he first started to come around her apartment as part of his routine checks.
“Today, Jeannie is not the same person as the Pokemon girl,” he said.
On the afternoon of June 26, Chapman stood at a podium inside a second-floor courtroom of the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. Budd, after sharing a few words about her achievement, stepped down from the bench, shook her hand, and handed her a gold coin with the word “Graduate” embossed on one side and the seal of the Maine judicial branch on the other.
Her father had flown in from Florida to watch the moment. In a booming voice that cracked almost immediately when he started speaking, he addressed his daughter and the entire courtroom, filled with the drug court team and the others who were making their way toward graduation.
“Thanks to all you guys, she’s alive,” Sterling Chapman said with tears in his eyes. But he was looking straight at his daughter, who stood with her hands clasped at her waist.
“I just want to say I love you, and I’m so proud of you,” he said.