Knox County is one of four midcoast counties that would be included in a proposed regional drug court.

Under a new district attorney, the vision for an expanded speciality court to serve criminal defendants struggling with addiction in midcoast Maine is growing, but still reliant on the Legislature for funding.

The proposal for a court dedicated to offenders with substance use disorder in the midcoast has been taking shape during the past year, after Maine’s judicial branch identified the region as a possible location for an expanded drug court that would offer more resources to defendants than traditional drug courts.

Newly elected District Attorney Natasha Irving is working on establishing the groundwork for potential regional resources for the proposed court, which would be located in Prosecutorial District Six, encompassing Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties.

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Instead of having the court be solely available to individuals who have struggled with addiction, as originally planned, Irving said the court will be more in line with a “co-occurring” disorders court, serving individuals who struggle with mental illness. Irving said the court will also be open to veterans.

“I don’t want to limit to just somebody that has a drug or alcohol issue. I want it to be for mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, for veterans returning home that are having mental illness or drug and alcohol issues,” Irving said.

There are currently six drug courts in Maine: in York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, Hancock, Penobscot and Washington counties. There is also a co-occurring disorders and veterans court in Augusta. These specialty courts serve a maximum of 25 to 30 defendants at a time.

These courts provide an alternative route in the state’s justice system for nonviolent offenders, focusing on addressing and treating the reasons why an individual commits a crime instead of sending them to jail.

After pleading guilty to charges, individuals may apply for admission to these courts. If accepted, participants work with a team that includes their attorney, a judge, individuals from probation services and mental health and substance use treatment workers.

[A section of Maine’s coast hit hard by the opioid crisis wants its own drug court]

In the expanded model pitched last year by Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, services such as job training, housing, child care and transportation would also be incorporated.

“I think it’s pretty clear that for substance use and mental health issues, jail does not work to change behavior,” Irving said. “It’s really the positive reinforcement, giving people the tools they need and helping them succeed down that road is how we’re going to get the change we want.”

Court officials have said startup costs for this type of specialty court in the midcoast would tally about $750,000 to $1 million, funding that would need to be appropriated by the Legislature.

Several bill requests have been submitted to appropriate funding for a veterans’ treatment court, including one request from Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, to “establish a veterans and drug treatment court in Prosecutorial District Number 6.”

“A bill to establish an integrated services recovery court in the midcoast is expected,” Elaine Clark, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said in an email.

In her annual address to lawmakers last week, Saufley urged lawmakers to focus spending on efforts to combat the opioid crisis in areas outside Maine’s courts. She said that programs within the judicial branch, such as drug courts, can only expand with investments in community-based mental health and addiction recovery services.

Gov. Janet Mills’ administration supports drug courts and other specialty courts in Maine, but agrees with Saufley that “more must be done to implement a comprehensive set of community-based services,” spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said.

Almost all funding for drug courts, Clark said, is for treatment services provided through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Likewise, funding for services provided through veterans’ courts flows to DHHS, which contracts with treatment providers.

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But this treatment can’t be provided if sufficiently funded programs do not exist.

“Critical to the establishment of the courts, however, is the availability of resources in the community to support the veterans,” Clark said. “Their success is dependent on sufficient funding for services.”

The direct cost to the judicial branch when creating speciality dockets is in “judge time,” Clark said. Generally, that cost is absorbed by existing resources.

Irving said her office is ready to commit its time and resources. She is currently working on identifying stakeholders within the region, such as defense attorneys, mental health and substance use treatment providers, who would be willing to participate in the speciality court if created.

With prosecutorial district six spanning four counties, Irving said the court would likely alternate between courthouses in Knox and Lincoln counties, which are in the middle of the region.

Officials have said a funding proposal for the court will likely be presented in time for the next biennial budget, which takes effect July 1, 2019. Irving is hopeful the specialty court could be up and running within the district in the next year.