About two of every three of the nation’s jail and prison inmates have substance use disorders, but only 11 percent of those who are addicted receive treatment while incarcerated, according to a 2010 study.

Though these are national figures, it’s likely that Maine – which had a record 378 overdose deaths last year – fits the same pattern. But new legislation offers cause for hope by making it possible for jail inmates to access addiction treatment while behind bars.

Sponsored by state Sen. Justin Chenette, a Saco Democrat, L.D. 377 would establish a Corrections Department grant program that would be designed with mandatory input from Maine’s sheriffs and county commissioners and pay up to half the cost of county jail-based drug treatment programs.

Grants would be awarded based on need, local buy-in and county financial support. Applicants also must present evidence-based proposals – a category that covers everything from detoxification services and medication-assisted treatment to recovery coaching and faith-based treatment.

Given how many inmates in Maine are struggling to overcome addiction, it’s clear that L.D. 377 could do a great deal of good. But Jenna Mehnert, head of the mental health advocacy group NAMI Maine, made an important point during the public hearing on the bill, when she told the lawmakers who are weighing the measure that it’s important to distinguish between people facing felony charges who “simultaneously struggle with addiction,” and low-level offenders whose crimes are directly related to their substance use.

The serious offenders, she said, would benefit from Corrections Department-approved inmate rehabilitation services, which would “allow for recovery to begin before inmates are released” – but those accused of drug-related misdemeanors would be better served by being diverted to a program that offers services such as housing, job training and health care in lieu of arrest. And the evidence backs up her recommendation: Diversion programs like those being piloted in Portland, Bangor and several other Maine communities have been shown to prevent relapse and recidivism.

Maine’s cash-strapped county jails – which have become what Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce recently called “the state’s largest mental hospital and detox center” – are feeling the impact as the addiction epidemic continues to escalate. L.D. 377 is based on a sound concept; with some revisions, the bill could cut off a frustrating and often tragic cycle of release, relapsing and reoffending that rarely, if ever, results in recovery for Mainers suffering from addiction.

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