PORTLAND — An effort is under way to start a specialty court in Cumberland County for defendants with mental illness and substance abuse problems as soon as October.

The Cumberland County Co-Occurring Disorders Court would be the second of its kind in Maine. The first was established in Kennebec County in 2005.

Defendants in the program are under intensive supervision as they follow court-approved treatment plans. They work with case managers and receive counseling and other services, including housing and vocational training.

They must plead guilty to the charges against them, submit to frequent drug testing and either work, pursue schooling or volunteer. They agree to two possible sentences, one that hinges on their successful completion of the program and another less favorable option if they don’t make it.

“The watch words of our court are rehabilitation and responsibility,” said Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, who presides over Kennebec County’s program and is one of the leaders of the Cumberland County project.

A planning group led by Mills, Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson and Carolee Lindsey of Catholic Charities Maine presented the project to potential community partners on Wednesday.

About three dozen people participated in the meeting, including representatives from law enforcement, the defense bar and providers of mental health and other services.

Anderson said there are many defendants with mental health and substance abuse problems who cycle in and out of jail repeatedly for short periods of time — sometimes as often as 50 times a year.

“I think we’re doing something wrong there. I don’t think that’s what we should be doing,” she said.

A recent one-day snapshot of the Cumberland County Jail population found that 25 percent of the inmates were receiving psychotropic medications and 40 percent had diagnoses for a category of mental health disorders that involve acute symptoms and require treatment, according to the project’s planning grant application.

Nationally, the recidivism rate for defendants with mental illness is 80 percent, Mills said. Maine can not build enough jails and prisons to house all of the defendants with mentally illness who will re-offend, she said.

“It’s time to give rehabilitation a chance. That’s what we’ve been doing in Kennebec and that’s what we hope to do in Cumberland County,” Mills said.

In October, seven defendants graduated from Kennebec County’s program. They faced a possible total of 23 years of incarceration, but completed the program with a total of two years and three months. The program has a graduation rate of 46 percent.

The Maine Judicial Branch and Catholic Charities Maine won a $50,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Determining the specifics of how the program would work in Cumberland County, including how it would be funded, will be part of the planning project.

The size and cost of Cumberland County’s program are among the details that will have to be settled.

It costs about $75,000 to $85,000 to have a case manager, drug testing and associated costs for 15 clients, said Hartwell Downing, the judicial branch’s diversion and rehabilitation coordinator.

The cost of counseling depends on how many of the participants are eligible for MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid.

 

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