Knox County is one of four midcoast counties that would be included in a regional drug court that is being explored by the judiciary.

Maine’s judicial branch is eyeing the midcoast as the future location of an expanded drug court that would offer an array of services to criminal defendants struggling with addiction.

District Attorney Jon Liberman said the possibility of a midcoast court dedicated exclusively to drug-related cases is still one to two years away. Establishing a drug court in the midcoast would also require the Legislature to appropriate $750,000 to $1 million for startup costs, according to Richard Gordon, coordinator of specialty dockets for the Maine Administrative Office of the Courts.

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But for a region hit hard by the opioid epidemic, a drug court could be another tool that could help address addiction, according to Liberman, who is the district attorney for Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties.

If the drug court is established, Liberman said it would serve a limited number of defendants from the four midcoast counties.

“Since I’ve taken over as [district attorney], I’ve been advocating to the judiciary to have a drug court here in midcoast Maine, and the good news is the judiciary also wants to do that,” Liberman said. “We haven’t had [a drug court] in midcoast. I think we’re due, and I think we could benefit from one.”

Maine currently has six drug courts, in York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, Hancock, Penobscot and Washington counties. Each court serves a maximum of 25 to 30 people at a time, Gordon said.

Nonviolent drug offenders may apply for admission to drug courts in these counties after pleading guilty to charges. Once accepted into the drug court, the participants are overseen by a team that includes representatives from probation services as well as people with mental health and substance use treatment backgrounds, Liberman said, along with “the judge, the attorney and the prosecutor all on the team working together and focusing on each individual.”

In February, Leigh Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, recommended that lawmakers create a “ full wrap-around drug court” as an alternative to traditional drug courts. The wrap-around drug court would offer a variety of services not currently available through traditional drug courts, such as job training, housing, child care and transportation, Gordon said, in an attempt to remove barriers that further complicate the path to recovery.

“If you address the underlying issues that lead into the substance use disorder, you can address the substance use without those issues getting in the way,” Gordon said.

The drug court being discussed for the midcoast region would be a wrap-around drug court, Liberman said.

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Gordon said the judiciary is eyeing the midcoast as the location for a potential wrap-around drug court based on “where the perceived greatest need was,” which was determined by a combination of the number of overdose deaths, the amount of reported substance use and the population of the region.

In Knox County, the rate of substance use among residents is significantly higher than the rest of the state, according a 2016 report compiled by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2015, Knox County — with a population of about 40,000 — saw more than 450 hospitalizations related to substance use, such as for opioid overdoses, according to the report. Only Cumberland County, with a population of 280,000, saw the same rate of hospitalizations because of substance use.

In recent years, there has been a community push in Knox and Lincoln counties to better address drug addiction, including the formation of the Lincoln County Recovery Collaborative, a multi-agency collaborative that brings together law enforcement and community groups to help support meaningful recoveries. A push is being made by Rockland-based Midcoast Recovery Coalition to form a similar collaborative in Knox County, using Lincoln County as a model.

Liberman said having a drug court in the midcoast would not be a “cure all” in addressing the opioid epidemic, especially because it could only serve a maximum of 25 to 30 defendants at a time. But he does believe it is an important tool to help deal with addiction.

“If the judiciary is willing to give us the time and the space [for a drug court, [the district attorney’s office] will make it work,” he said. “The most important thing is that the judiciary is on board, which they are, and that there is community interest, which there is.”

Liberman was appointed by Gov. Paul LePage in 2017 to finish the term of the previous district attorney, Geoffrey Rushlau, who left to fill a district court judgeship. Liberman is being challenged this November by attorney Natasha Irving of Waldoboro. If she is successful in her bid for district attorney, Irving said she would “100 percent” continue advocating for a drug court.

A working group will convene in February to further discuss the possibility of a wrap-around drug court in the region, Liberman said.

It is not clear when the judicial branch would request funding for the wrap-around court. A spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts said in an email that she could not provide any further details “about the timing of the judicial branch’s anticipated request” for funding. But such requests would likely be included in proposals for the state’s next biennial budget, which must be in place by July 1, 2019.

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