June 19, 2019

Drug court makes inroads on addiction After a year, judges, clients see successes

BANGOR – The young woman sobbing at the defense table placed her head in her hands and swore she had not used drugs that week. Perhaps, she tearfully explained, it was the poppies on the crackers she had consumed the night before she was selected for a random drug test that caused her to test positive.

A handful of fellow addicts sat in a row of chairs behind her. They looked at the floor and shuffled their feet as the woman from Washington County cried.

“I did not use. I’ve worked so hard. I’ve been clean for four months. I swear to God. I don’t know why the test was positive. I don’t want to screw this up,” she cried.

Welcome to drug court, and the rewarding but often frustrating job of the judges who preside over it.

Judge Ann Murray listened to the young woman’s plea, shook her head silently and decided to give the problem some thought. The woman had slipped before, but her progress overall was encouraging.

Murray is one of 11 judges on the front lines of the battle to undo the damage caused by the insidious alcohol and opiate addiction raging across the state.

The judges preside over seven Drug Courts in six counties, while maintaining a full caseload in criminal and civil court.

Most of the Drug Court participants are in their mid-20s. In Penobscot and Washington counties, most are addicted to opiates. Many have failed other attempts at recovery and all have committed a crime.

They are the first to participate in the state’s first attempt at a statewide Drug Court. The concept is taking judges into a whole new realm of justice that has more to do with recovery and less with crime and punishment.

According to a recent study released by the Muskie Institute, a Portland-based research center, the program is off to a good start.

Nationally, traditional substance abuse treatment has a 10 percent to 30 percent retention rate for a one-year treatment program, while Drug Courts nationally are showing retention rates of 60 percent to 70 percent after one year.

Because it takes at least a year to graduate from Drug Court, the Muskie Institute had no way to measure the total effectiveness of Maine’s newest court, which enrolled its first participant in April 2000.

But early indications are positive, the institute determined.

For example, the percentage of Drug Court participants employed or in school has increased 16 percent since they joined the program, according to the study.

More than half – 54.4 percent- of all Drug Court participants in Maine have remained drug-free since enrolling.

Getting to know the addicts

Rather than a name on a criminal docket, judges are getting to know Maine’s addicts on a deeply personal level. Drug Court goes well beyond clean drug tests, focusing equally on the addict’s lifestyle, job, living arrangements, relationships and transportation needs.

“It is truly the highlight of my week,” said Justice Andrew Mead who along with Murray presides over the Bangor Drug Court. “When we have a good week, I leave with a great attitude for the weekend, and when we have a bad week, it really affects me. You just feel really lousy when someone who has been doing so well messes up.”

Judges across the state are welcoming the ability to reach across the bench with some real tools to make a difference.

Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley is committed to convincing the Legislature that the court will pay off by reducing the number of addicts in the state, reducing jail population and recidivism rates and by providing the state with a positive cost benefit.

“This court is a partnership between all three branches of government. So far the Legislature has been very supportive and I believe the court is being extraordinarily effective,” said Saufley. “I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve never seen a group of judges so committed to a program. When it works, it’s extraordinary.”

Tobacco funds foot the bill

The Drug Court was launched last spring after the Legislature approved about $800,000 from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to be used to establish the court.

That money pays for the cost of case managers, treatment, drug testing and the salary of Drug Court coordinator John Richardson.

The first drug court was implemented in Miami in 1989. There now are about 750 adult drug courts, including 48 tribal drug courts, in the country.

Maine is one of the pioneer states to have implemented a statewide adult Drug Court.

Courts are located in six counties – Cumberland, Androscoggin, Oxford, Penobscot, Washington and York. Each is assigned one case manager provided by Maine Pre-trial Services. Those managers, along with probation officers from the Department of Corrections, screen applicants, keep track of participants’ schedules, conduct drug tests and home visits and talk with each participant daily.

Substance abuse screenings and treatment are provided by various treatment centers across the state. In Bangor the service is provided by Wellspring Inc.

Alternative to jail

Mead knows too well the ineffectiveness of throwing drug addicts in jail without treating the problem.

Drug Court, he says, offers an alternative for those who are more drug addict than criminal.

A Drug Court candidate’s crimes can range from misdemeanors to felonies, but the underlying reason for the crime must be an addiction.

“We need to believe that the addiction drove the crime and that if the addiction did not exist, the crime wouldn’t have occurred,” said Mead.

The candidates must agree to plead guilty to the crime they are accused of committing. Instead of being sentenced immediately, however, the offender is enrolled in Drug Court, which involves a multitude of treatment programs, weekly meetings with counselors and Drug Court case managers as well as a weekly appearance in Drug Court and random drug tests.

If the offender is successful and graduates, he or she will go back before the judge to be sentenced on their original crime. The District Attorney’s Office has the ability to reduce the charge based on the successful completion of Drug Court and the judge has a wide latitude of sentencing options, including forgoing any jail time.

Penobscot County District Attorney Michael Roberts actively participates in Drug Court.

“This isn’t a way to get out of a criminal charge,” Roberts stresses. “And those who think it is, well, they find out differently very quickly. Those are the ones who fail and we are finding that the program seems to be doing a pretty good job itself of weeding those people out.”

At the heart of the Drug Court system is a reward and punishment incentive program. Failing a drug test or not appearing for counseling or in court means a judge can order the defendant thrown in jail for a few days or longer or increase already restrictive rules, such as curfews.

Because the defendant has not yet been sentenced, failing the program means he or she goes back in front of a judge to be sentenced on the original crime. On the other hand, judges can loosen restrictions or offer rewards, such as gift certificates, for an offender who makes progress on the road to recovery.

Clients know the score

Take Tim, a handsome young man with a conservative haircut, a bright personality and an opiate addiction.

He’s in a residential treatment program and on a recent Friday afternoon at Drug Court was given the coveted and very rare “sloth award” from the staff at Wellspring.

Because of his progress, he gets a day off from all treatment – no counseling sessions, no classes, no tests.

Tim laughs and jokes with the judge about his progress.

“Who’d have guessed it?” Tim says.

On the same day, Mead next turns to Jason, a husky man in his 20s with a crew cut who recently spent 48 hours in jail for failing a drug test.

Jason has been in the program and clean for months until a recent drug test showed signs of cocaine in his urine.

Mead knows that Jason denies using drugs and that he believes the test was faulty. The judge is concerned that Jason is discouraged.

“You are a great and important part of this program and you have made great progress. I want you to know that it’s time to move on and get past this,” Mead tells the young man.

Jason nods and tells the judge about a birthday party he is holding for his son that weekend.

To an observer sitting in the back of the courtroom during Drug Court sessions, it’s easy to understand the connection and the stake that judges feel for the clients.

In Bangor there is Tanya, a heroin and OxyContin addict and admitted former thief. She is working a full-time job and taking a full load of classes at a local college, all while attending the required five to six 12-step programs and counseling sessions each week. Each morning begins with a trip to the local methadone clinic.

“The team is worried about you, Tanya,” Mead says softly. “You’re working and schooling at an almost inhuman pace. Is there something that can give a little?”

Tanya assures him she’s doing fine and that next semester she plans to reduce her class load. The team will keep an eye on her, but meanwhile it is announced that she had progressed into Phase 2 of the three-phase Drug Court program.

After receiving a telephone calling card, a magnet, a certificate and a round of applause, she returns to her seat.

There is Angela, a tall, beautiful woman who continues to surprise herself at the good grades she is getting since starting college last fall. She recently aced a psychology exam. Her good marks are discussed each time she stands before the judge, who already has been briefed about her schooling before Drug Court begins for the week.

There is the only married couple in the group, who often come with their children. They live outside of Bangor and have no car. The husband spends $96 a week on taxi fares to get back and forth to his job. Transportation is a big hurdle for them and the team of judges, prosecutors, administrators and counselors talk about that during the weekly meeting they hold before Drug Court begins. Currently they remain drug-free, employed and with their children.

Recovery can be fragile

The fear for all is that issues such as no transportation, a bad relationship or even a failed college exam could derail a person’s success.

“Recovery is very fragile and everyone here has been around addiction long enough to know that,” said David Pelkey, the Drug Court case manager in Bangor.

“This takes a huge commitment,” Mead said. “But we hope the outcome, ideally being sobriety, is well worth it, not only for the client, but also for the state of Maine. It’s an investment on both sides.”

Overall, it wasn’t a bad week for Bangor’s Drug Court clients, but not every week goes so well.

Any given Friday may involve one or two clients going from Drug Court to jail for a weekend stay because of missed meetings or failed drug tests.

Judges hope a few days behind bars will set the clients back on the right path, but for four Bangor clients who started the program this fall, it didn’t work.

The four were kicked out of Drug Court for either committing new crimes or failing to stick to the rigid rehabilitation schedule. A fifth dropped out on his own, according to Pelkey.

“We cleaned house a bit,” he said. “It’s a learning process and we needed to figure out who makes good candidates and we made some mistakes along the way, but I think the program is better for it. I think we have a lot better idea today who makes a good Drug Court client than we did when we started.”

But each loss is hard for the judges who preside over Maine’s newest court.

“You watch them each week and usually each of them makes some progress and you have such hope for them and then something goes wrong and you have to send them out and it’s bothersome. But we have to maintain strict standards here or it’s all for naught,” Mead said.

Noting that the largest percentage of Drug Court clients are hooked on opiates, Mead said he has been surprised at the aggressiveness of the addiction.

For the young woman from Washington County, her slip early this winter, combined with other issues, convinced Judge Murray to send her to jail for a week.

Each time that happens, judges wait to see how the clients will respond when they come back. Will the sanction discourage them and prompt them to drop out, or renew their sense of purpose?

The woman from Washington County remains in the court. She has moved into a residential program at Wellspring and court staff members have a great deal of hope for her.

“It’s just stunning the hold that these drugs have on these people,” Mead said.

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