Legislature fails to fund Aroostook County drug court

1 month ago

A drug treatment court remains out of reach in Aroostook County after funding approved by a legislative committee failed to materialize when the House did not consider the measure.

Last week, $740,000 in funding to get The County treatment and recovery court off the ground was approved by the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and passed the Senate. But because the funds were amendments to LD 580, the bill was sent back to the House for approval.

The House did not act on this bill and many other measures because Gov. Janet Mills warned that the Legislature was pushing the state budget to a breaking point.

“To come this close to establishing and funding a drug court in Aroostook County only for politics to get in the way is heartbreaking,” said Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who has led the way for a County treatment court over the past few years.

The funding setback has not diminished support for the court by its backers.

“With the bill not passing, it will cause a delay, but it will not cause a failure of this court to take place,” said Julia Finn, legislative analyst for the Maine Judicial Branch. “The need is there and there are a lot of people who worked very hard to make this happen.”

Treatment and recovery courts, known in Maine as specialty dockets, offer an alternative to jail for people with substance use disorder. Applicants must go through a screening process and plead guilty to their alleged crimes.

There are currently six adult treatment drug courts in Maine. They are located in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford, Penobscot, Washington and York counties.

For people in Aroostook, the only Maine judicial jurisdiction without a treatment and recovery court, the closest option is in Calais, more than 130 miles away from the County’s population center. Most people with substance use disorder who commit crimes in Aroostook County must recover in jail. 

Last legislative session, Jackson originally introduced LD 1596, seeking $140,000 in funding for an assistant district attorney for the court. But as discussions progressed, backers of the court realized they needed more input to broaden their view, said Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins. 

Over the past two years, the Aroostook County District Attorney’s Office, health care providers and members of the recovery community have worked to put together a plan and garner approval from the Judicial Branch to make the Aroostook Drug Court a reality, said Jackson.

In February, Collins submitted The County’s detailed application to the Maine Chief Justice and according to Finn it was preliminarily approved.

The first step in developing a treatment and recovery court is making sure all the entities are in place and willing to participate which is already done, said Finn.

“Identifying the funding is an important piece, but it does not mean the court is dead,” she said. “There is no time limit on this application. The only thing lacking at this point is the funding.”

According to Finn, there are various entities tied to the treatment court, including the district attorney’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services, and it is up to them to try and make this move forward. 

“It is my understanding and I have been told this by legislators, there’s a lot of support in the Legislature for establishing a drug court in this location,” she said. . 

Jackson said he plans to talk with Attorney General Aaron Frey to see if there are any funding streams available to move the project forward. 

“Even if they have to ask for it in the next budget cycle, it is a delay but I do believe this court will get off the ground,” said Finn. “It’s just a question of when.”