Drug Court revisited after 13 years: Is it working?

AUBURN — Donald Hornblower walked into the office of Assistant Attorney General David Fisher 12 years ago to talk about some strange new pills unfamiliar to both men.

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“Oxycodone, what's that?' Fisher asked.

When Fisher charged Hornblower's client with a serious crime, the defense attorney balked, explaining that the drug was a prescription medication.

“I remember there was a moment there where our world kind of turned,” Hornblower said Friday while sitting in the Androscoggin County Law Library. He and Fisher were two of more than two dozen participants at a conference to discuss the effect of local substance abuse and, more specifically, the Drug Court, 13 years after it was launched in Maine.

Fisher and Hornblower attended the two-day conference to lend their perspectives as courtroom adversaries whose common aim was to combat drug abuse in the local community.

Within a decade of that encounter at Fisher's office, oxycodone and other opiate-based medications would become common parlance as well as the scourge of Maine's illegal drug scene, blamed for, among other crimes, scores of pharmacy robberies.

More recently, Melissa Tremblay, director of clinical services at Tri-County Mental Health, said she remembered hearing about a drug called "bath salts," thinking it sounded like something that would be more relaxing than menacing.

“From a community provider standpoint, I know that in our crisis services system it seems like we're constantly trying to stay up on what the latest drug is that's impacting people and bringing them to the emergency room,” she said Friday.

MaryGay Kennedy, the Androscoggin County Superior Court justice who presides over that county's drug court, said Friday she didn't want so-called Dominican ties — the name for twisted plastic baggies containing crack — to be the next drug-related name introduced to the lexicon of Maine substance abusers, much less to elementary school students in Lewiston.

Stakeholders, including Maine Drug Enforcement agents, probation officers, prosecutors, defense and family law attorneys, corrections officers, substance abuse therapists and a psychologist, discussed what is working and what isn't in the community fight against substance abuse.

On Thursday, community service agencies were represented during a discussion of how to get more addicts into treatment and recovery and keep them there.

Drug agents explained Friday how illegal drugs enter Maine's communities through a highly organized network of out-of-state gangs. Once in the community, those drugs hook local people by changing their brain chemistry and forming addiction, Hornblower said.

Kennedy said that she sometimes loses sight of that fact when she's seated at the bench during routine criminal hearings.

In an effort to feed that addiction, many resort to stealing. In 2013, 40 percent of Maine drug court participants had been charged with theft or burglary.

To compound the problem, mental health issues often accompany alcohol and drug addiction, according to those who work with addicted defendants. 

The Drug Court was introduced in the United States in 1989 in Miami Dade County in the midst of a crack epidemic after a judge grew tired of seeing drug abusers filing through what seemed to be a revolving door in his courtroom, said Hartwell Dowling, coordinator of specialty dockets and grants at Maine's judicial branch.

Dowling, who led Friday's discussion, said that program was expanded over the next 25 years to more than 3,000 drug courts across the country. Other countries, such as England, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Italy, embraced the model and adopted their own versions. There are five drug courts in Maine.

“It's shown to be a model that works,” he said.

But quantifying how well it's working in Maine proved elusive to many of the participants in the conference.

By some measures, it's a qualified success.

Maine's rate of recidivism for Drug Court graduates after one year of the program's completion was 16 percent in 2013. The rate of re-offense for non-Drug Court participants in Maine two years after completing their jail or prison sentences was 33 percent in the same period, said Darcy Wilcox, case management director at Maine Pretrial Services.

Maine's Drug Court graduation rate in 2013 was 55 percent compared to 48 percent nationally, Dowling said.

One of the problems plaguing Maine's drug courts is a low enrollment rate. Each of the five programs in the state was designed to serve between 30 and 40 participants. Currently, there are a total of 74 Drug Court defendants, including 25 in Androscoggin County Superior Court, Wilcox said.

Despite some public misconceptions, Drug Court isn't a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” its supervisors said. While sentences are suspended during participation in the program, the underlying charges haven't been dismissed. And even graduates face probationary terms, at a minimum.

Dowling said the rigorous requirements demanded of Drug Court participants likely contribute to its relatively low enrollment rate.

They include:

* Weekly or more frequent random drug testing;

* Phone checks;

* Home checks;

* Mandated treatment and therapy;

* 12-step meeting attendance;

* Work, school or community volunteering;

* Curfew;

* Travel restrictions; and

* Restrictions on public venues (no bars) and association with illegal drug and alcohol users.

Violations may trigger increased scrutiny or monitoring; serious violations may void the contract, sending the defendant back to jail for trial.

Addicts are likely to fall off the wagon at some point, according to those who work with offenders. By creating support systems for them and changing their environment, the Drug Court program is designed to help offenders adopt drug-free lifestyles. It doesn't work for everyone, but it has worked for some.

“How do you define success?” District Attorney Norman Croteau asked. He said people ask him whether Drug Court is working to keep addicted defendants from committing new crimes while keeping the community safe.

His answer: It depends on the defendant. For one person, success may be graduating from Drug Court and staying clean for the next year. For another person, the bar of success may be higher or lower.

“It's something we struggle with every day, every time we hold Drug Court,” he said. “There is no magic number.”

But when measured in dollars, the results can be eye-opening.

It costs roughly $108 per day to house and feed an inmate at Androscoggin County Jail. It costs about $110 per day to house and feed an inmate at the Maine State Prison. For $22 per day, a defendant can participate in Drug Court.

For Kennedy, success is the “ripple effect."

“If that individual gets anything (out of Drug Court)," she said, "it's going to have an impact on their family, their children, their spouses, possibly a job, education, paying their taxes, not just standing around on the street corner all day long. We have the ability to impact the community.”

cwilliams@sunjournal.com

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Comments

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I think it would be fair.............

Yes we can applaud the success of the Drug Court. All those criminals trying to get their oxycodone pills from the out of state dealers bringing them into Maine. It seems that every week we hear of a large amounts of prescription pain medications being confiscated and the dealers are put in jail.
I was impressed at the number of stringent guidelines these criminals must follow just to stay out of jail. I was also impressed at the number of those same stringent guidelines I have to go through just for a few hours of relief. Thats right, I have never robbed a drug store, I was never caught with illegal drugs on my person. Yet I have stringent guidelines to follow just to obtain these same medications.
When ever I hear these happy ending stories, how good these dealers are doing, how few drugstores are being robbed these days, I never hear a single word mentioned about people who live with debilitating pain, 24/7 and NEED these drugs for a little relief.
When taken properly and as scheduled these medications work wonders. They don't get us high, they don't give us any special feelings, In my case it allows me to walk a little more during the day. I can actually go out and enjoy myself for a few hours. Yet I am a victim of this war on drugs. Because no one has yet to find a way to differentiate us from the addicts. So erring on the side of caution legitimate pain patients are given some of the same rigorous guidelines to follow as well.
I wish that the DEA could figure out some way to identify legitimate pain patients and quit breathing down medical providers backs and let them do what they do best, treat patients as patients, not like Drug Court parole's.......................

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