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The Removal of Jail Time as Possible Drug Court Outcome Angers Some
07/12/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Last fall, there was a formal shift in policy in Maine'S five drug courts which offer alternative sentencing to help rehabilitate those whose crimes are connected to their drug use. In the past there was always the threat of incarceration for anyone who violated the rules. But now the Corrections Department has moved away from jail time as a consequence. The Cumberland County District Attorney, for one, called the program as meaningless.

For five years, Lisa Nash was a drug court probation officer. She monitored offenders, making sure they showed up for AA meetings and passed drug tests. When offenders failed to meet their obligations, sometimes they were sent to jail, and rightfully so, said Nash. But other times, she felt they just needed more treatment.

"Sometimes, absolutely, I felt like, Oh my God, what am I doing here? And then they ended up in prison, and I'm like, This is not making sense to me," said Nash.

SHe is now the Regional Correctional Administrator in southern Maine. Last October, she said, the Department of Corrections instituted new guidelines for drug court that shifts penalties for offenders away from incarceration.

"When we put drug offending abusers into prison, we don't really address the problems, and it costs a lot of money. And people get out, and no behavior has changed," Nash said.

Violations are now ranked low, medium, or high, and punished accordingly. So if someone fails to report to law enforcement, they'd likely be required to perform community service. Nash said in the past, drug court offenders were sometimes thrown in jail for a couple of years for such minor violations. Now, so long as the offender isn't dangerous, the jail sentence is often just a few months, while case managers try to find a treatment program.

"And what our philosophy, kind of the change is, Yeah, this is the fifth time you've tested positive for drugs, you are going to sit there in jail until we can find you a residential program, because you can't do it on your own," said Nash. "What's going on now in drug court is defendants are giving each other the high five sign when they leave the room."

Stephanie Anderson is the District Attorney for Cumberland County, and the only DA, according to Nash, who is resisting the changes. Anderson started the drug court program in the late nineties, and she doesn't like the changes because she thinks the intermediate sanctions don't hold offenders accountable the way incarceration does.

"Now, what's important to remember here is these people who are the drug court clients, are under a sentence of incarceration," said Anderson. "They have already been convicted of a crime, they already have conditional liberty, and they already have been given the so-called intermediate sanction of probation."

Anderson said her office no longer wants to participate in drug court, leaving the future of the program in question. But others support the new guidelines. Elizabeth Simoni is the executive director of Maine PreTrial Services. Her organization provides case management to all five drug courts in the state, which extend from York to Hancock Counties.

"I support the shift. I have a belief based on the research and literature," Simoni said.

Research shows a drug court's response to an offender's actions should match the behavior. Doug Marlowe is a researcher with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. He said the question to treat versus punish is a constant issue in drug courts and both should be used.

"The model said jail is not your first option," Marlowe said. "Because that's what drug court is trying to get away from, is the overuse of jail for what is sick and compulsive behavior."

What's critical, said Marlowe, is to identify who is willfully misusing the system, and who is truly an addict who needs help. In Androscoggin County, Deputy District Attorney Andrew Robinson said he doesn't think the new guidelines make it any easier for someone to play the system.

"The folks that work in the drug court here in Androscoggin County, I think they're going to be very quick to identify individuals who are taking advantage of the system or feel like they can manipulate the system, and that won't be tolerated for long," Robinson said.

The question remains whether the Cumberland County drug court will crumble. Doug Marlowe said such flare ups are common, but drug courts are by far the most successful intervention program in the criminal justicE system. If the program were to fall apart, he said, both offenders and the community will suffer.

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