The chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court urged lawmakers Tuesday to fund a comprehensive approach to combating the state’s opioid crisis, even though that funding wouldn’t necessarily flow to the judicial branch that she oversees.
During her annual address to a joint session of the Maine Legislature, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said Maine courts won’t be able to expand the programs they have to help people struggling to overcome addiction without an investment in the services that are available outside the courts.
“All of the funding necessary to respond to the addiction and mental health needs of the public should be focused on the wide range of necessary community-based services that are not within the judicial branch budget,” Saufley said.
Saufley urged lawmakers to focus on expanding access to mental health and addiction recovery services as well as medical and dental care. She also listed safe and sober housing; case managers, coaches and mentors for those in recovery; and job training and education opportunities for those trying to turn their lives around as needs.
“The bottom line is this,” Saufley said. “The judicial branch has a protocol in place that allows the creation of new addiction and mental health dockets as soon as the key components are in place in your communities, and you need not focus that funding on the judicial branch.”
The state’s court system runs a number of specialty courts — including the drug, veterans and mental health courts — for offenders with addictions and other challenges as an alternative to jail sentences. They depend on connecting participants with services provided in their local communities.
Gov. Janet Mills attended Saufley’s address and said she would work “collaboratively and supportively” with the court system, especially to combat the opioid epidemic.
Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, agreed with the chief justice on the need for community services to support people in specialty courts.
“The state needs a lot of services after eight years of rollback under the previous administration,” said Cardone, who serves on the Legislature’s judiciary committee. “We’ll have to see where our priorities are and where the money is.”
Saufley also focused her speech on three areas on technology upgrades for the court system, the implementation of a digital case management and e-filing system to replace the court’s longtime paper-based file system, and changes to the handling of criminal and juvenile cases.
The $10 million transition from an entirely paper system to an electronic case filing system is to be implemented in late 2020 with a pilot project in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, but not all information will be accessible by the public. Criminal cases, traffic infractions and most civil cases will be available online but adoption records, child protection records, mental health civil commitment records and most juvenile records will not.
“We estimate that those cases comprise more than 85 percent of the court’s annual case filings,” Saufley said. “Some kinds of information will not be available to the public in any digital files, such as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, or personal medical records.”
A decision about domestic violence and family cases is pending.
“In domestic violence cases, we must all comply with the federal law that shields any information identifying a petitioner from any internet availability. We will have more on this soon,” she said. “In family cases, we are designing a hybrid rule that will allow public access to the nature of the proceedings and summaries of the resulting judicial actions but will not provide public access to the very personal filings between and among the parties, many of which relate to the struggles that children experience during periods of family instability.”
A decision about whether access to documents will be free for everyone or if it will be a subscription service similar to that offered by the federal court system has not been made, Saufley said at a press conference after her speech.
Saufley also urged the Legislature to fund programs to help juveniles in crisis who wind up in the court system.
“Our children and youth in crisis need more mental health services and recovery facilities designed for youth,” she said. “They need: Safe housing and youth-focused facilities, where they can receive treatment and be protected from predators, resources to extract them from human trafficking and keep them from harm and well-trained advocates to help them navigate our complex social services and legal systems.”
She said that the largest gap in juvenile services is the absence of options for placement of young people who cannot go home.
“We all understand that, if the only option for placement in Maine is Long Creek [the state’s youth prison], which is designed for very specific circumstances, we are not doing justice for our children,” she said.
Several bills are pending calling for the closure of the state’s only juvenile jail.
Saufley spoke in broad terms about the work the judiciary is doing and did not specifically ask for funding for particular bills.
Republican legislative leadership didn’t respond to a request for comment.