On Monday, June 29, Gov. Paul LePage submitted his four-page letter vetoing the biennial budget forwarded to him by the Legislature. The next day, the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto by the necessary two-thirds majority, thereby adopting the state’s biennial budget for the next two years.
The governor’s budget proposal had included $8.124 million in funding for seven new Maine Drug Enforcement Agency agents, four new assistant attorneys general, four new district court judges and 22 new assistant district attorneys “to increase enforcement of drug trafficking crimes and to provide additional resources for prosecution and adjudication.” Notably absent, however, was any increased funding for substance abuse treatment or for our Drug Treatment Courts.
Drug Treatment Courts are designed to break the recurring cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration by focusing on the treatment and rehabilitation of selected defendants instead of sending them to prison. Furthermore, drug courts decrease crime and recidivism; increase public safety; increase sobriety and recovery among former defendants; and provide substantial annual savings in unexpended net correctional costs. In fact, drug courts are more cost-effective than any other criminal justice intervention: they work better than jail or prison, they work better than probation and they work better than treatment alone.
The governor’s veto letter includes pictures of four individuals previously arrested by MDEA agents and charged with aggravated trafficking or trafficking in heroin and/or crack cocaine. In addition, the letter contains three pictures of a crying baby to underscore the statements, “The drug epidemic continues to ravage our streets — nearly 1,000 babies are born each year addicted to drugs and 208 Mainers died of drug overdoses in 2014 … Choosing to protect drug traffickers and allowing more babies to be born drug-addicted … is simply unconscionable.”
Aside from being untrue, such accusations and rhetoric are unnecessary, counterproductive and inappropriate. The governor claims that the Legislature did not fund “an adequate number of MDEA agents to hunt down the ruthless out-of-state drug traffickers that are infiltrating our communities and killing our children.” In fact, whereas the governor had requested funding for seven new MDEA agents, the new budget funds four additional MDEA agents. However, the new budget also provides $301,000 and $353,000 in additional funding for Drug Court Case Management Services in each of the next two years, respectively. In addition, the new budget provides $150,000 in each of the next two years to re-establish the Adult Drug Treatment Court in Penobscot County. Unfortunately, the governor’s budget failed to provide any of this funding.
Clearly, the governor’s approach to Maine’s drug epidemic focuses on increased law enforcement and incarceration, while New England’s other governors focus on substantial increases in funding for treatment. In addition, Rep. Mark Dion, former co-chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and former Cumberland County Sheriff, told the Boston Globe last July, “Overemphasis on enforcement without an equal commitment to treatment is just spinning the merry-go-round faster and faster … Jail doesn’t work, I can tell you that.”
Fortunately, Maine’s 127th Legislature has provided a more balanced approach to the complex problems of drug addiction than the governor, and for that the Legislature should be thanked.
Dick Dimond is a retired physician from Southwest Harbor and the Steering Committee chair of the Hancock County Adult Drug Treatment Court.