AUGUSTA — Upon entering the Healing and Wellness Court at the Penobscot Nation Tribal Court, participants are greeted with a “smudge” and a prayer.

“It sets the tone of what we do here, for wellness and for healing,” Rhonda Decontie said.

Decontie, the court clerk for the Penobscot Nation Tribal Court, and Judge Eric Mehnert spoke at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Maine State Forum series earlier this month to a virtual audience about the success of the Healing and Wellness Court program and how with Decontie’s help, the program has become meaningful to those who go through it.

November is National Native American Heritage Month.

Healing to Wellness Court uses the principles of restorative justice to work with Penobscot Nation members and incorporates parts of the Penobscot Nation culture to improve social problems within the community on Indian Island.

“We are fortunate in Penobscot Nation,” Mehnert said. “All of the services a state would have, the nation has on the reserve. We have our own police, own behavioral health, doctors. We have a director of housing, director of behavior health. They all sit on the Wellness Court. In addition to the prosecutor, public defender and case manager who is a social worker.”


According to Mehnert, 65% of inmates in the United States have a substance use disorder and most cases that come to the Healing to Wellness Court are related to addiction. Through Wellness Court, 73% of individuals who complete the program do not go on to re-offend.

A large part of what makes the program successful is through using positive reinforcement.

“You don’t change behavior with negative reinforcement, only with positive,” Mehnert said.

He said if they give an individual four pieces of positive reinforcement for everyone one negative reinforcement, the individual will do “markedly better.” Mehnert makes the conscious decision to not wear a robe while in Wellness Court, mainly because many of the individuals who come through the program have had bad experiences with previous judges. He wants his court to feel like a safe space.

Decontie, who graduated from the University of Maine at Augusta, serves as the cultural advisor. Her suggestions, like the smudge and the prayer at the beginning of the meetings, have made a difference in the way participants perceive and feel when they come to Wellness Court. She also suggested the participants sit in a semi-circle, to encourage the idea of togetherness.

“It worked really well,” she said. “In doing that, when sitting in a circle, they are hearing and there is a connection that we are all doing this together. We are here to guide you on this path.”


She also came up with the names of the four steps of the program — step one is tobacco, two is cedar, three is sage and four is sweetgrass, which together make up the ingredients of the smudge and represents wellbeing in the Penobscot Nation culture. She said before when the phases used numbers, participants couldn’t decipher what each phase meant.

“Tobacco is about detoxification, cedar is stabilization and treatment, sage is maintenance and then there’s sweetgrass,” Mehnert said. “You have to have at least 30 days of sobriety to get through the first phase. The program is 12 to 18 months, some finish in 12, and one has been in it for two years. It is an individualized treatment plan and how we can support them through recovery.”

Mehnert said he thinks the program could be successful in other parts of the state; he’s had a conversation about establishing a similar program in Waldo County.

“I think the graded approach is something that could work in other areas of Maine,” he said. “The other part, the cultural part makes it unique, but communities through Maine with special cultures might be able to build upon them.”

During the spring semester, Mehnert will teach a new course on tribal law that will include the concepts he and Decontie spoke about.

Sharon McMahon Sawyer, UMA associate professor and program coordinator of justice studies, said that would be the only tribal law course offered in the eastern United States.

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