The new district attorney has changed the ironclad no-deal policy for drunken-driving charges in Kennebec County that’s been in place since 1976.

A pilot program, launched last week, gives first-time offenders in Kennebec County a chance to avoid a conviction for operating under the influence, but they’ll have to work hard to do it under guidelines set by District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, who took office last month.

Those charged have to undergo substance abuse evaluation and treatment if recommended, refrain from using or possessing alcohol for a year, do community service, pay a monthly supervision fee and refrain from new criminal conduct.

“This is giving someone a chance,” Maloney said. “It has to be more difficult than just pleading guilty to an OUI. Essentially, it forces someone to have treatment.”

Those considered for the diversion program must have a clean criminal record, a blood alcohol content of less than 0.12 percent recorded during the incident, and no aggravating factors in the traffic stop.

“No accident, no kids in the car, no dangerous driving,” Maloney said.

She also said that if people are unable to afford alcohol treatment programs, she would accept proof that they had attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for a year.

The pilot program is not in effect in Somerset County, said Maloney, even though her prosecutorial district includes both counties. She said she wants to evaluate the success of the diversion program, which is similar to one offered in Portland. She’s most interested in seeing whether people reoffend.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty worked with Maloney on the program.

“I believe this creative, innovative policy better serves the public, reserving those jail bed-days for violent offenders,” Liberty said. “Solely incarcerating people for offenses is not effective as a deterrent.”

Liberty said his focus is having offenders get treatment and give back to the community.

The policy change was evident at hearings last week in Kennebec County Superior Court. Several people pleaded guilty to drunken driving, and the disposition of the case was postponed, in most cases for a year.

Nathan D. Williams, 27, of Unity, pleaded guilty to operating under the influence and received a 12-month deferred disposition with conditions that ban him from use or possession of alcohol or illegal drugs.

He was ordered to undergo substance abuse evaluation and to complete counseling and provide proof of that every 60 days. The conditions include 40 hours of community service.

If Williams complies with all conditions, he can withdraw his plea next February and plead guilty to the lesser charge of driving to endanger, with an accompanying $575 fine and a 30-day license suspension.

The state program is aimed at reducing “the incidence of injury, disability and fatality that results from alcohol and other drug-related motor vehicle crashes, and to reduce the risk of reoffense for OUI,” according to the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.

P.J. Perrino, a former district attorney, said the previous no-deal policy was instituted in 1976, when now-Justice Joseph Jabar was district attorney.

“Either you try the case or you plead (guilty), because you weren’t going to get any deals,” Perrino said.

He favors the change.

“I think it will benefit people in the long run, both financially or psychologically,” he said.

Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

badams@centralmaine.com