AUGUSTA — The graduation this week of five more people from the intensive supervision of a special court program proved bittersweet to the judge who has presided over it.

Justice Nancy Mills helped craft the Co-occurring Disorders Court, a program that admits defendants who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and substance abuse problems.

Since its inception almost six years ago, Mills said the court was founded to “think differently, to be innovative, to try a new approach.”

But cash is running out. The court is funded with $1.4 million in federal grants that run out this fall.

“Without funding from the state of Maine, it is likely that this court, operated for nearly six years with federal money, will close,” she told a courtroom full of people — including other judges, legislators, defendants, caseworkers and family members, among others — who had gathered to watch the graduation ceremony.

Evert Fowle, district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties, was one of the original steering committee members and still serves occasionally in the court.

“It costs upwards of $55,000 to house an inmate in our jails, according to the Department of Corrections,” Fowle told attendees. “It costs about $6,000 to give one of our clients a full range of services for mental illness, substance abuse and full accountability.”

He wrote to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee last month asking that $200,000 be allocated in the budget to continue the court, saying that amount would save money in such areas as jails, emergency rooms and crime victimization.

“Just imagine how traumatized one person is when they are assaulted, robbed or burglarized, not to mention their material losses, physical suffering and the impact on society at large,” he wrote.

Mary Ann Lynch, director of court information for the Maine Judicial Branch, said Wednesday there was currently no proposed legislation to fund the court.

“We will look hard for other sources to support co-occurring disorders court,” Lynch said. “We will be looking every place we can.”

At the graduation ceremony last Monday, Mills reiterated the top three program rules for those unfamiliar with the court’s operation.

“We make ourselves available, all of us, 24-7 for our clients,” she said. “That’s a significant commitment. And we have done it now for 5 1/2 years. We don’t hand out magnets with the crisis line number and then close at 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon — 24-7 for these people.

“We never take no for an answer from anyone. Maine’s mental health system is in place to help those in need. We ask and we expect that the system work.

“Third, and probably most important, we really like our clients in this court. We believe in them, we want them to succeed, and they are not the adversary.”

She offered court statistics, as well: 388 referrals, mostly from Kennebec and Cumberland counties; with 75 people admitted, 27 discharged and 23 graduated, including the five this week. Thirty-three adults are currently enrolled in the program.

Defendants have an incentive to succeed. “The five graduates today faced a combined 174 months incarceration if they had failed,” Mills said.

To be admitted to the special court, defendants plead guilty to their criminal charges or admit to violating probation. Then, two alternative sentences are put on the record: One is relatively lenient; the other could involve years in prison.

Any jail time is served up front, and case managers — armed with medicine, housing and treatment programs — meet the inmates when they walk out of jail.

All the participants gather most Mondays at Kennebec County Superior Court, where the judge and others track their program. Drug testing is random and frequent.

“The Co-occurring Disorders Court shows what can be accomplished by commitment to do a better job for people who need our help,” Mills said. “It requires defendants to take responsibility for their conduct, to help them in their recovery and to break the cycle of repeated involvement in the criminal justice system.”

The judge noted that the national recidivism rate is 80 percent for inmates with mental illness.

“If we continue to incarcerate defendants with mental illness and substance abuse problems and give them inadequate treatment and medicine and release them with little support, Maine cannot building enough prisons to house them when the almost inevitable criminal conduct occurs.

“That’s just the dollars-and-cents argument. It does not address our obligation to treat our most vulnerable citizens with humanity and compassion and to have a process in place to protect the people of Maine from further criminal conduct.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

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