Since America’s first drug court was created 30 years ago, this hybrid approach that combines criminal justice and treatment elements has spread to all 50 states, with over 3,000 such courts across the country.
The focus, as Justice Nancy Mills, the judge who oversees Maine’s eight “treatment” courts, told the BDN recently, is on rehabilitation instead of incarceration. The general goal, to divert minor drug offenders away from jails and prisons and toward court-supervised mental health and substance use treatment, is a laudable one.
Maine has several different types of drug courts: adult treatment, family treatment and a co-occurring disorder and veteran court for civilians and military veterans who have both substance-abuse disorders and mental illness.
As the human and budgetary costs of incarceration mount — and despite some criticism from advocates who would like to see full decriminalization of drug crimes — drug courts remain a worthwhile and demonstrated avenue to reduce recidivism and criminal justice spending.
That doesn’t mean the voluntary process — in which defendants must plead guilty and apply to participate — is perfect, or perfectly understood.
A recent BDN story followed the path of one drug court participant from Bangor, who graduated from the program in June. Her path through the process was not always a smooth one, but provides an anecdotal example of how the drug court process can combine accountability and treatment, with positive results.
A Maine-specific drug court evaluation released in 2016 found that graduates had a lower post-admission recidivism rate, 16 percent, than those who applied but were not accepted, 32 percent. A seperate 2016 report on Maine drug courts provided to the Legislature estimated that every $1 spent on Maine’s adult treatment courts generates $1.87 in savings for the state criminal justice system.
National results have also demonstrated lower recidivism and costs, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Despite some encouraging results, there are still unanswered questions about why certain graduates are succeeding and others aren’t. And as Maine’s Chief Justice Leigh Saufley told the Legislature in her 2018 state of the judiciary speech, drug courts are reaching less than 300 people across the state, and 45 of the 254 drug court participants in 2017 — nearly 20 percent — were eventually expelled from the program.
“We need to match our own sense of urgency with rapid access to treatment and seriously comprehensive follow-up,” she said at the time, proposing an explanation of the number of communities served by drug and veterans court programs, and the creation of an alternative, more comprehensive drug court.
A proposal, which could be considered when the Legislature comes back into session, aims to create this new, “wrap-around” drug court in the mid coast that would include a wide range of support elements such as employment training, transportation and childcare assistance. Despite a more than $2.5 million total price tag, this two-year pilot program merits strong consideration from the Legislature — both because the mid coast is currently without a drug court and because of the potential to study this new approach.
“Any new pilot project must include appropriate tools for measuring and assessing the success, or lack [of] success, of the pilot,” Julia Finn, legislative analyst for Maine’s Administrative Office of the Courts, emphasized in her testimony in support of the proposal. “This is of critical importance to future policymakers who will be tasked with deciding What resources should be directed toward the program.”
Moves to increasingly approach addiction, when possible, as a health issue rather than a criminal matter are commendable. We should continue to turn to — and further study — drug courts as a means of directing more Maine people to treatment rather than incarceration.