Program that has been in effect for 20 months has had 31 successes and 61 failures.

PORTLAND (AP) – It’s been 20 months since Maine set up its drug court, an innovative drug treatment program designed to cut off crime at its roots.

But so far, only 31 have successfully completed the treatment. Another 61 failed to live by the rules and were expelled before graduation.

Advocates for the Maine Adult Drug Treatment Court program say it’s too soon to say what those numbers mean – or if they mean anything at all. They say that drug court clients are all addicts with long criminal histories, and that relapses should be expected. And the program is too new, they add, to product statistically meaningful results.

But the disappointing early returns have some top officials questioning whether the program can succeed in its present form, and asking if it’s living up to its promise.

“In most of these cases, people are doing the time they were going to do anyway,” Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said. “There are some red flags here.”

Drug court gives drug offenders a simple deal: Complete a rigorous yearlong drug-treatment program, or go to prison and serve a long sentence.

Clients must attend at least five meetings of a 12-Step program each week, abide by a curfew, submit to surprise urinalysis tests at least twice a week and do volunteer work or go to school if they aren’t employed.

Each week, all drug court defendants appear before a judge. If they fail in any way, they are instantly punished, often by a quick trip back to jail.

The drug court has six sites around the state, and it now handles fewer than 200 cases. Most people who apply are not admitted, and almost twice as many are expelled as graduate.

John Babbitt, 32, is among those who failed – and succeeded.

Babbitt was arrested for dealing heroin at the age of 19 and received a mostly suspended, 25-year prison sentence. He was released on probation, which he constantly violated, and was sent back to serve more and more of his sentence, eventually doing eight years in prison.

Drug court at first appeared to work, and Babbitt seemed free from a heroin habit that had controlled him since he was a teenager. A year ago, he became one of the program’s first graduates.

But three months later, a staggering, bleary-eyed Babbitt caught the eye of a clerk at the Cumberland Farms convenience store in Windham, who called police. Babbitt tested positive for methadone and other drugs and was sent back to prison for two months.

Today, Babbitt is married and trying to rebuild his life. He has stayed clear of trouble with the law, but has decided to control his drug problem with methadone maintenance instead of the abstinence he learned in drug court.

“I slipped. It happens in recovery,” Babbitt said. “If I didn’t have drug court I probably wouldn’t have recovered as well as I did.”

For Lisa Nash, a probation officer for 16 years, even Babbitt’s case doesn’t make her lose hope.

“Sometimes I get discouraged with the failures, but then I think, this kid still has a shot,” Nash said. “A year of being clean is still an accomplishment.”

In Cumberland County, four of the first nine drug court graduates have violated their probation and ended up back in prison.

In York County, three of the first eight graduates failed to stay out of trouble after completing the program, and Penobscot County reports three of its 13 drug court graduates did not stay sober. In Androscoggin, Oxford and Washington counties, drug court officials report no relapses among graduates.

AP-ES-05-11-03 1401EDT



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