Launching an adult criminal treatment court in Aroostook County could give Mainers who commit drug-related crimes help for their addictions instead of years behind bars.
Last month, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, proposed legislation to establish an adult criminal treatment court in Aroostook County. LD 1596 would appropriate ongoing funds — $119,886 in 2023 and $126,195 in 2024 — for an assistant district attorney position for the court.
Aroostook County is the only judicial region in Maine without a drug treatment court. For those who want help, the closest such option is in Calais, a drive of more than 100 miles for most county residents. Without treatment, more than 75 percent of those jailed on drug charges will repeat the drug crime cycle and return to jail, experts said.
“I do not see how we can, in good conscience, wait for someone to kill, injure, maim, burglarize, rob or steal before we step in and demand a serious response to a serious problem,” Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins said. “The creation of a drug court in Aroostook County will be an integral part of that solution.”
No place in Maine is untouched by the drug epidemic. Even in rural Aroostook County, high-level drug arrests and fatal overdoses are increasing and communities feel the side effects. Buildings have been stripped of copper wire, victims have been assaulted, medicine cabinets raided and cash stolen, Collins said.
Maine created six adult treatment drug courts in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford, Penobscot, Washington and York counties more than 23 years ago. Aroostook County remains the only county without access to drug court.
“It has always been unclear why a treatment recovery court has not existed in one of the counties that could benefit the most. As a lawyer and a Maine citizen, I find the lack of a treatment recovery court in Aroostook County astounding,” said Amber L. Tucker, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Gov. Janet Mills’ 2021 Opioid Response Strategic Action Plan recommended adding the courts on the midcoast and in Aroostook County in 2022. The midcoast court — serving Knox, Waldo, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties — launched last year.
“I have been to prison for drug possession and trafficking. It didn’t treat my disease,” Eric J. Finnemore, an Aroostook County native who now lives in Machias, said in testimony before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on April 25.
As predicted, Finnemore was charged with possession after being released. But this time, he was offered a chance at treatment in the Washington County Adult Drug Treatment Court instead of jail. He graduated last summer, and he now works at Aroostook Mental Health Services Inc. as a recovery support navigator.
“I am a trusted member of the community and employed through the agency that helped me break the cycle of revisiting prison because of symptoms of my disease,” he said. “Programming and therapy work. I am proof of that. This program has offered me hope that I can be more than just another hopeless person who will die in addiction.”
Jackson is working with stakeholders on a comprehensive plan to establish a treatment and recovery court in Aroostook County. The plan was requested by the Judiciary Committee during last week’s work session on the matter, said Christine Kirby, Jackson’s spokesperson.
The committee seems supportive of establishing such a drug court, and members Sen. Anne Carney, D-Scarborough, and Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, said they would like to see it happen in The County, Kirby said.
“If we are serious about combating the opioid epidemic and helping Mainers get their lives back on track, we need to use every tool available. Establishing a treatment and recovery court in Aroostook County is one important tool,” Jackson said.
Data gathered from nine Maine treatment courts show fewer arrests, fewer convictions, reduced overdoses and decreased mortality, Clement Deveau, Aroostook Mental Health Services program director of behavioral health and integration services for Washington and Hancock counties, said during April 25 testimony in support of the legislation.
Treatment courts are a special docket specifically for those in drug court. Applicants must go through a screening process and plead guilty to their alleged crimes, according to state documents outlining drug court procedures and guidelines.
Once admitted into treatment court, participants are required to meet with the presiding judge weekly or biweekly to report on and account for their progress as well as maintain regular weekly contact with their case manager and probation officer, if on probation.
Additionally, they are required to actively seek and or maintain paid employment, attend educational programs, engage in community service, pay all fines, restitution, child support and taxes, maintain stable and sober housing, undergo frequent and random observed drug testing, and participate satisfactorily in intensive treatment and self-help groups.
Failure to follow these conditions can result in incarceration or termination from the program, guidelines say.
“While we know that a drug court in Aroostook County is not a silver bullet or a complete answer to serious substance abuse problems, it can nevertheless be a significant part of the solution,” Collins said.