AUGUSTA, Maine — In 2007, Nicholas Carpenter of Rockland was what you might call a hardened criminal.

After his arrest for burglary, theft and operating a vehicle after revocation, he landed in the Maine criminal justice system. After a suicide attempt in jail, he was sent to Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. With a wife and three children, plus another child on the way, he faced at least three years in prison. Life seemed hopeless.

“I fought the judge every time I came into the courtroom,” said Carpenter. “I thought I knew it all. I wanted to go back to the party scene. I wanted cigarettes. I wanted to smoke a joint.”

In 2008, Carpenter’s lawyer told him about a program called the Co-Occurring Disorders Court, which is run out of Kennebec County but attracts clients from all over Maine. The program is designed to help people convicted of crimes who have problems with substance abuse and mental illness.

For Carpenter, the choice was simple: Three additional years in prison or facing his problems on the outside with the help of the program. Carpenter chose the latter.

“I was having a kid soon,” he said Wednesday. “I didn’t want to be away from my child and my family anymore.”

For almost two years, Carpenter faced a barrage of counseling and frequent drug and alcohol tests. There were times he almost quit, but Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, who oversees the program, didn’t give him an easy way out. In fact, Mills and a slew of others who contribute to the program turned Carpenter’s attitude around. Among other things, Carpenter quit drinking, drugs and smoking cigarettes all at once.

“They told me what to do and when to do it,” he said. “This program is a miracle that has changed my life. I recommend it to anyone who wants to change.”

Carpenter was one of seven people who graduated from the Co-Occurring Disorders Court on Wednesday in Augusta. Participants graduate when they have met the terms of a treatment plan that shows they have become sober and brought their mental illness under control. One after another on Wednesday, the new graduates described how the program pulled them from seemingly impenetrable depths.

William Rowell of Portland, a former television and radio personality in Maine, described how he became addicted to crack cocaine in his 40s. After several months of bingeing on the drug, he robbed two convenience stores and fell into a deep depression. One day he was awaiting sunset, when he planned to pipe exhaust into his vehicle until he killed himself. Then three officers converged on him with guns drawn and arrested him.

“My life was saved two times,” said Rowell after receiving his graduation certificate from Mills. “Once from suicide and once by going through this program.” Rowell has been sober for almost three years and hopes to launch a syndicated radio talk show this summer that focuses on helping people with co-occurring disorders.

Justice Mills spearheaded the Co-Occurring Disorders Court four years ago but said she couldn’t keep it going without help from people ranging from lawyers to probation officers to counselors to police officers. Since then, 56 of the 320 people who have been referred to the program have undergone treatment. Of those, 19 peo-ple have failed and 15 have reached graduation. The rest are still in the program. In all, the program has reduced its participants’ jail sentences by a combined 264 months. Mills said that so far, the state has saved about $1 million in incarceration costs.

In a typical case, a participant signs a contract to enter the program and in return receives the shortest possible sentence. Upon release, the participant immediately begins an aggressive treatment program and re-entry into the community.

“It’s because we are able to have all the ducks lined up for re-entering society that lets our clients succeed,” said Mills, who recognized several agencies who help support the program’s clients.

Receiving Outstanding Community Provider awards were the Bread of Life Ministries in Augusta and Augusta Mental Health Center. Receiving Outstanding Criminal Justice Collaborator awards were Region 3 Adult Community Corrections and the Augusta Police Department. Three lawyers, Lisa Whittier of Augusta, Seth Levy of Brunswick and Steve Bourget of Augusta, were recognized for being outstanding advocates for people with disabilities.

Many of the graduates thanked these people and others, including one who is on her way to becoming a psychologist.

“They didn’t just give me a gift,” she said. “They gave my children a gift and my family a gift.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.