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Maine's Top Judge Calls for More Resources to Treat Drug Addiction

Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley (file photo)
Portland Press Herald
Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley (file photo)

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley says Maine needs more alternatives to incarceration if the state wants to stem the rising numbers of drug prosecutions that are clogging courtrooms.

Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley (file photo)
Credit Portland Press Herald
Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley (file photo)

A.J. Higgins reports on Leigh Saufley's "State of the Judiciary Address."

Speaking to lawmakers during her State of the Judiciary Address, Saufley said more treatment programs and drug-free housing options are also needed to put addicts on the road to recovery.

Like overdose deaths that have risen exponentially in recent years, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley says the same is true for drug prosecutions.

"Rough numbers from our imperfect data base tell us that the convictions just for Schedule W drugs — that includes opiates and heroin — have gone from over 1,300 in the year 2013 to 1,500 in 2014 up to almost 1,800 last year," Saufley said.

But instead of using her "State of the Judiciary Address" to make a plea for more judges, Saufley is asking for more state funding to offer diversion programs for certain drug offenders with addiction. And she said treatment has to be a major component of that process along with new housing options for adult and juvenile offenders that will keep them from slipping back into addiction. Saufley also said she supported sentencing alternatives to jail for addicts, including ankle bracelets that would permit electronic monitoring of offenders by case managers. But she said prosecution alone will not serve as a catalyst for rebuilding lives.

"We can't incarcerate our way out of this problem," Saufley told reporters at a press conference following the address. "We know across the country that just going with incarceration for these kinds of issues will do nothing to help society return to health."

With additional funding for court facility upgrades and two more judges provided by the Legislature, Saufley said that Maine's Court System is moving forward in its ability to handle the increased number of drug prosecutions.

"The real issue that the judges are confronted with every single day is what to do about a person in front of that judge who is grappling with addiction."

"The chief justice is taking a holistic, pro-active approach and not just focusing on the criminality of the issue," said Rep. Barry Hobbins.

Rep. Barry Hobbins, a Saco Democrat who is the House chair of the Legislature's Judiciary, joined members of both parties on his panel in praising Saufley's ability to zero in on the underlying issues that many addicted Mainers face as they negotiate the state's criminal justice system after being charged with a drug-related offense. He was joined by the panel's Republican Senate chair, David Burns, of Whiting, who said he appreciated the chief justice's belief that Maine could reduce its rates of drug abuse.

"The chief justice talked a lot today about rehabilitation which is extremely important, the AG talked about enforcement this morning and, of course, the governor's talked about everything, so I thought she was right on point this morning," Burns said.

Saufley urged lawmakers not to be discouraged by the rising numbers of drug abuse in the state saying that Mainers have always found a way to collaborate when Maine people need solutions.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public

A.J. came to Maine Public Radio in August 2007 after a stint as a staff writer for Blethen Maine Newspapers. His news coverage for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta also appeared in the Waterville Morning Sentinel, the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram. Prior to joining the Kennebec Journal, A.J. served for 13 years as political editor and State House bureau chief for the Bangor Daily News.

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