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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

Cynthia Brann, associate commissioner for adult community corrections at the Department of Corrections, said in a statement that while no high-level discussion took place within the department on the Cumberland County Drug Court, she supported Nash's decision to withdraw the probation officer.

"Lisa Nash and the probation officer had many discussions with the drug court team. After not making any progress and after consulting with me, it was determined that our limited resources were better needed elsewhere," Brann said. "I believe we are still providing information to the drug court team, but we are no longer a full-time presence."

HOW IT STARTED

There are five drug courts in Maine, but only Cumberland County has been affected in the dispute. The probation department continues to assign an officer to drug courts in York, Hancock, Androscoggin and Washington counties. The programs in each county are primarily funded by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Treatment Services, with costs totaling $2,588,609 in fiscal year 2013, according to John Martins, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Anderson founded the state's pilot drug court program in 1998 with a $288,000 federal grant and additional county money. After the pilot program launched, lawmakers approved the program in 2000 and the judicial branch began replicating it elsewhere in the state.

From its inception to the end of 2012, 1,435 men and women participated in drug courts statewide, with a graduation rate of 57 percent in the most recent evaluation.

The judicial branch, in a 2012 report, found that drug court graduates are 50 percent less likely to be arrested in the first year after they graduate than a felon sentenced in traditional court.

The probation department began advocating against incarcerating drug court clients for some probation violations even before its policy change. Nash said there were discussions with Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte about research by the National Institute of Corrections and other entities that show incarceration for lower-risk offenders can be counterproductive.

Nash said the Corrections Department is receptive to discussions with other officers in the program, which includes a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a representative from Maine Pretrial Services and a representative from Catholic Charities, which provides drug treatment for the addicts.

"Our change in philosophy is to put less people in," she said. "The commissioner has asked us to look at intermediate sanctions and alternatives."

Under the new policy, probation devotes most of its attention to more dangerous offenders such as high-risk sex offenders, murderers and rapists, rather than shoplifters, Nash said.

If a client commits a violation, probation officers must rank the violation as low, medium or high and issue a corresponding sanction unless they get permission to deviate. They must also get permission to file a motion to revoke probation and send a client to prison, even for moderate- or high-severity violations.

Violating curfew, for example, is now ranked a low-severity violation, punishable by sanctions ranging from a verbal reprimand to 10 hours of community service. Changing residence without approval is a medium-level violation. Refusing a home visit is a high-severity violation.

"Up until October, probation officers could do whatever they wanted. We want to be fair," Nash said. "The goal is to get at what's driving the criminal activity. Is it because of substance abuse? Is it because of lack of education?"

Nash said years ago, she would have jailed someone for a probation violation for five to 30 days to "teach them a lesson."

"That turned out to be just long enough to lose everything they had," Nash said. Even during that short period in jail, the client could lose his job and home, leaving him more likely to return to crime, she said.

(Continued on page 3)

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Today's poll: Drug courts

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

Yes

No

View Results