Maine’s top judge went beyond the scope of the court system in her annual State of the Judiciary address Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to take new approaches to respond to the state’s growing opiate addiction crisis.
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley spent nearly half of her address at the State House in Augusta on the topic of addiction, describing it as “one of the most pressing issues facing us all.”
Saufley wants to see expanded options at each stage of the criminal justice system, including programs to divert addicts toward other community services both before and after being charged with a crime. She also seeks more sentencing options for judges, and specialized treatment for addicts also diagnosed with mental health issues.
But Saufley took a broader approach in her remarks than simply focusing on criminal justice reform, saying Maine needs more residential treatment housing for addicts, more testing for drug use as a tool to keep recovering addicts from relapsing, and more case management to serve as a bridge between families and treatment providers.
“The wave of drug addictions is eating at the heart of our beautiful state,” she said.
STATE’S DRUG COURTS CAN’T DO IT ALL
Saufley delivered her remarks in the House Chambers before members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. She was joined by the associate justices of the Supreme Judicial Court and the chief judges of Maine’s Superior Courts and District Courts.
She highlighted the work already being done through the judiciary’s drug court program, but said drug court alone cannot do it all. Drug court is for addicts convicted of felonies, in most cases, that allows them to avoid prison by completing a court-based program that is much more intense than probation.
“Even if all of the drug courts, including Bangor, were up and running at full capacity, only about 350 people, optimistically, would have the opportunity to find a sober life through the drug courts,” Saufley said.
She cited what she said is overwhelming evidence that the addiction problem is growing:
• 272 people died from drug overdoses in 2015, a 31 percent increase from the 208 overdose deaths in 2014.
• 1,013 babies were drug-affected at birth in 2015, which is 8 percent of all live births in Maine. There were 668 drug-affected babies born in 2011.
• The state recorded nearly 1,800 criminal convictions involving the class of drug that includes opiates and heroin, up from 1,500 in 2014 and 1,300 in 2013.
“In other words, even with our blunt measuring capacity, the horror of heroin and opiate addiction in our youth, our middle-aged citizens and even our mature Mainers is growing,” Saufley said.
The chief justice’s push for more treatment measures, case management and criminal justice options follows efforts by Gov. Paul LePage, who initially focused on stepped-up law enforcement against drug traffickers from out of state before also seeking more resources for treatment.
LePage was in Quebec at the time of Saufley’s State of the Judiciary address and had not been briefed in advance on what she planned to say, Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Wednesday.
“I think the governor and chief justice have had a very good history of working well together. Their priorities have been one and the same,” Bennett said. “His door is always open. I’m sure they will be continuing to work together.”
Sen. David Burns, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said many of the issues that Saufley raised probably will come before him.
“She covered a lot of ground,” Burns said. “I like most of her ideas.”
Burns noted that Saufley focused mostly on treatment for drug addiction Wednesday, and that Attorney General Janet Mills has talked about battling the drug crisis with more law enforcement.
“I think everybody is on the same page that this isn’t a one-solution problem,” he said. “I’m very convinced that one of the solutions to this problem has to be long-term residential programs.”
Burns said long-term programs have been proven to be more effective than short-term ones, but they are very expensive. He supports spending the money on the right programs if they are strict and show results..
ELIMINATING CRIMINAL CASE BACKLOG
In the address, Saufley also outlined progress by the state’s courts in the past year to overcome a substantial backlog of criminal cases.
“The relentless influx of new criminal cases could overwhelm the system, but we have a plan,” she said.
A unified docket program has nearly been implemented statewide. The program eliminates the need for separate dockets for a single criminal case in both District Court and Superior Court.
Saufley said the addition of two new judge positions also will help address the backlog. She also called for more funds for jury trials to close cases.
“With all of that support, we hope – for the first time in decades – to eliminate backlogs in the courts’ criminal cases by the end of this summer of 2016,” she said.
As the judiciary has unified the dockets in District and Superior courts, it also has sought to consolidate the number of courthouse buildings. There are currently 38 state courthouses in Maine. Saufley called for new construction in Waldo, Oxford and York counties over the next four years that would allow the state to close existing buildings to bring the total number of courthouses down to 33.
A bill introduced by Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, to obtain the estimated $95 million in courthouse construction costs already has been forwarded by the Judiciary Committee with a recommendation that the bonding measure ought to pass.
Saufley also told lawmakers that she would welcome legislation on bail reform.
“There is no question that Maine has an antiquated bail system that needs to be completely revamped,” she said.
Two separate committees within the judicial branch already have recommended significant changes in the bail system, but the cost of the proposals has been prohibitive in the past, she said.