Troy Morton, left, and Marianne Lynch Credit: Composite image

Penobscot County is offering two new programs that allow some people facing their first theft or drunken driving charges to avoid jail time by taking a range of classes in different life skills. The program for those facing theft charges even lets the offenders have the charges dismissed.

While both programs are homegrown, they are part of a national trend toward allowing people whose nonviolent crimes are related to mental health and/or substance use disorders to avoid jail time. In Penobscot County, the diversion program for drunken driving offenders could preserve some space in the overcrowded jail that county commissioners are deciding how to replace. The programs also will help connect people who may be struggling with a substance use disorder with area services.

Sheriff Troy Morton’s new PACE program for defendants convicted of their first operating under the influence charge replaced a program that ended in October in which defendants spent a weekend participating in community service and educational activities.

Participants in PACE — which stands for purpose, awareness, connection and education — will take part in a series of seminars covering topics including life skills, work readiness, literacy and stress management.

Penobscot County District Attorney Marianne Lynch’s program for first-time shoplifters allows participants to have their charges dismissed if they participate in a three-hour long learning session.

So far, 102 people have had their charges dismissed since the shoplifting program started, the district attorney said. Since the first session last March, just six participants had committed new crimes as of Dec. 13.

The next session, set for Jan. 28, will include about 40 participants at the Bangor Area Recovery Network in Brewer. There is no cost to participants.

A new alternative for OUI offenders

The first PACE session is set for Jan. 24 and 25 at the Columbia Street Project in Bangor with 20 participants. Participants pay $75 to offset the program’s cost in addition to any fine imposed by the judge. The program lets them skip a 48-hour jail sentence.

Maine law imposes a mandatory fine of $500 for the first OUI conviction and a mandatory 48-hour jail sentence if the defendant had a blood alcohol level that was 0.15 percent or more (the legal limit is 0.08 percent), was going more than 30 mph over the speed limit, eluded an officer or had a passenger under age 21.

Defendants who plead guilty to drunken driving but whose blood alcohol level is between 0.09 and 0.14 percent and who do not meet other criteria in the law must pay the fine but do not face jail time.

The alternative sentencing program PACE replaces was held over 2 ½ days, usually at a school or camp, and participants were required to sleep overnight rather than be incarcerated at the overcrowded Penobscot County Jail.

Run by the sheriff’s office for years, staffing it became too expensive and the nonprofit Maine Pretrial Services took it over in 2015, Morton said. That organization ended the program for the same reason. Toward its end, participants were paying more than $300 to participate.

“About 100 people a year, classified as low-risk or no-risk offenders, were diverted from the jail to that program, but it was only offered quarterly,” Morton said. “That model outlived itself.”

The fact that it was not offered more often and was expensive kept some people from participating, he said.

The sheriff described the new program as “a therapeutic approach to incarceration, through an educational experience.” He said he hopes to offer it monthly and potentially expand it to those charged with other nonviolent offenses.

To participate, defendants must appear before a judge and plead guilty to a drunken driving charge. If the offender qualifies and wants to participate in the program rather than go to jail, the judge imposes a jail sentence but delays it until the date of the day program, Morton said.

When they report, they technically are furloughed from the jail to the program. If a participant left before completing the program or did not return the second day, he or she could be charged with escape.

Unlike in Lynch’s program, the OUI charge remains on a defendant’s record and is not dismissed.

Shoplifting on the rise

In March, Lynch organized an experimental session that she has been able to continue. It allows individuals charged with a Class E theft from a business to attend an educational program on substance use disorder at the Bangor Area Recovery Network in Brewer. At the end of the program, Lynch dismisses the charges.

At each session, participants learn about substance use disorder, treatment resources and how to administer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. The seminar also addresses the impact of theft convictions on employment and other topics.

“My goal is to address the drug crisis and to help people who have no criminal record maintain it so they are able to get and keep jobs,” Lynch said. “A criminal mischief conviction won’t keep a person from getting a job, but a theft conviction will.”

People who are using drugs or are involved with people with a substance use disorder sometimes steal items from businesses to trade or sell in order to buy drugs, according to Lynch. Or, they take necessities because they have spent their earnings on drugs.

Class E theft cases, which includes stolen items valued at less than $500, are on the rise in Penobscot County. The number of cases filed by the district attorney’s office rose from 655 in 2016 to 797 in 2019. The maximum punishment for a Class E crime is six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

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“A potential downside to the program might be that people with substance abuse issues meet each other,” she said. “That is one of the unintended negative consequences.”

Bruce Campbell, the clinical director of Wellspring Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services in Bangor and a member of the BARN’s board, disagreed.

“They are going to meet each other somewhere anyway,” he said. “This program is more about lifting a barrier to people becoming more successful in life.”

Lynch oversees the program herself but receives participant referrals from other prosecutors and defense lawyers.

“People make their initial appearances, and I tell them that they can plead guilty and pay a $250 fine, or they can go to the program and have their cases dismissed,” she said.

So far, everyone Lynch has made the offer to has taken her up on it. She offers the program six times a year.