AUGUSTA — Members of a legislative committee who heard a proposal Tuesday to expand a pilot court program in Augusta for convicted veterans with substance abuse and mental health problems to other parts of the state asked the bill’s sponsor to come back next week with a scaled-back version.
Rep. Lori Fowle told members of the Judiciary Committee at a public hearing that the current version of her bill, L.D. 1697 – to expand the Veterans Treatment Court to all eight prosecutorial districts in the state at a cost of $1.16 million – was not what she intended.
“I would love to see veterans courts in every prosecutorial district in the state, but I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Fowle, a Vassalboro Democrat.
Fowle said the Judicial Branch calculated that $1.16 million amount, but she feels her more modest plan to create two other veterans courts would cost less than half that amount.
“I think a more reasonable approach would be to take smaller steps and do it right,” Fowle said.
The veterans court pilot program started in 2012 as part of the pre-existing Co-Occurring Disorders Court, designed to aid offenders dealing with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Justice Nancy Mills now presides over both programs in Kennebec County Superior Court.
The creation of the program was spurred by the fatal shooting by Farmington police of Afghanistan veteran Justin Crowley-Smilek, who was threatening officers with a knife, in 2011. He had appeared in court the day before the shooting and was ordered to seek psychological help.
Men and women can enter both Co-Occurring Disorders Court and Veterans Treatment Court by pleading guilty and committing to meet rigorous requirements involving treatment, counseling and reporting to the court. Those in the Veterans Treatment Court are mentored by other veterans and work closely with the VA Maine Healthcare System in Togus.
Mills testified Tuesday that as the court’s sole current judge, she is neither for nor against Fowle’s proposal. But she expressed several reservations about expanding the program to other areas without focusing in the needs of the existing court.
Mills said the court has received only 48 applicants since its inception, 15 of whom were rejected and 10 of whom withdrew their applications. The Augusta court can accommodate 25 participants but currently has only 13 members, she said.
“We have reservations about expanding veterans court until we are at capacity,” she said.
Mills said the Judicial Branch does not know how many veterans are in the criminal justice system and that only those charged with felonies are eligible for the intensive program.
“People who are charged with operating under the influence are not candidates for veterans court,” Mills said. “We’re talking about people whose lives will turn for the worse if they’re not admitted to the court.”
She added that only one participant in the court currently commutes a significant distance, from York County. Others willingly relocated to meet to the program’s demands.
“I think some of the veterans would tell you that coming to Augusta and severing their connections were helpful,” Mills said.
Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, testified in favor of the bill but asked that the Legislature not lose sight of the needs of the existing program.
Maloney said that her office’s prosecutor assigned to the Co-Occurring Disorders Court is currently funded by Kennebec County, but that funding runs out on July 1. She said if the state does not opt to fund the prosecutor, she will have to cut the position.
No one spoke in opposition to the bill. The Judiciary Committee will revisit the proposal at a work session next Tuesday.
Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at: