July 6, 2013

Enforcement dispute jeopardizes future of county drug court

After the probation department withdrew its full-time officer, the district attorney who founded the concept calls for the program's end.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - For more than a dozen years, the Cumberland County Drug Court program has provided an alternative to incarceration, helping convicted felons overcome drug addiction and re-establish themselves as productive members of society.

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click image to enlarge

Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz listens to a client during a drug court session recently in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court. For most of the existence of the program, a dedicated probation officer would attend the drug court sessions, but after a change of policy by state officials, that is no longer the case.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Now, a clash between prosecutors and the state's probation officers -- in what has been described as "philosophical differences of opinion" over how aggressively drug court violations should be enforced -- threatens to undermine the program's very existence.

Even District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who founded the drug court concept in 1998, is calling for the program to end.

"If it can't be done right, it shouldn't be done at all," said Anderson, who wants stricter enforcement of violations.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, House chairman of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, says it's now time for the two sides to resolve the conflict. He said he plans to call key officials this week to discuss the impasse.

Dion, who only learned of the year-old dispute during a conversation with a Portland Press Herald reporter last week, said it's not productive "for everyone to hold their breath and wait for someone to bend."

The nature of the dispute stems from the program's resources and its effectiveness.

Drug court in Cumberland County, an intensive program for addicts who have already served part of their sentence and are now on probation, relies for its success on effectively supervising felons. Drug court participants have the threat of the remainder of their jail sentences hanging over their heads if they get into trouble again.

Until late last year, a probation officer was assigned to the drug court and would consistently file motions to revoke probation against clients for violations such as failing a drug test, or not reporting an address change. Clients were routinely sent back to jail for such infractions, court records show.

But basing their decision on the idea that incarceration is ineffective for nonviolent offenders, officials at the state's probation department shifted policy in October 2012.

"The more you put people in jail, the worse they get," said Lisa Nash, the regional correctional administrator in southern Maine. "The problem is, it doesn't change any behavior. Incarcerating people does not reduce recidivism."

The new policy was so badly received by the other members of the drug court team in Portland that the probation department withdrew its officer dedicated to the program, Nash said.

"We stepped away from drug court due to some philosophical differences of opinion," she said.

Anderson said that without the threat of incarceration, the program simply doesn't work.

"I think drug court has lost its teeth," she said. "The three important priorities of drug court are supervision, treatment and relationship to the court, and there has to be an understanding that supervision actually means something."

Although Anderson was instrumental in the founding of drug court, she said that without a probation officer and the active threat of punishment for infractions, the program should be abolished.

"Everybody in drug court has been convicted and has been sentenced," she said. "Their liberty is conditional. It is conditional on their compliance with the conditions of probation and drug court. If the conditions aren't enforced, then drug court, it's a sham."

While drug court is run by the state's judicial branch, it has no authority over the probation department, which answers to the Department of Corrections, the agency that runs the state's adult prisons and juvenile correctional facilities.

Judicial branch officials have declined to take any public position on the dispute or the future of the Cumberland County program.

"We have no comment on that issue," said Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the judicial branch.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Drug courts

Do you think so-called drug courts are a good idea?



View Results