Maine’s Chief Justice: fund opioid treatment, not the courts

In a move criminal justice experts say represents a clear shift away from punishing Mainers dealing with substance use disorders, Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Leigh Saufley advocated for increased funding for health and mental health care to combat the opioid crisis in her State of the Judiciary address on Tuesday.

During the address, Saufley said the state needs to “expand options for diverting more people from a life-time of incarceration,” and encouraged legislators crafting the budget to fund “community-based services,” rather than pump more money into the judicial branch, including mental health and drug courts.

“All of the funding necessary to respond to the addiction and mental health needs of the public should be focused on the wide range of necessary community-based services that are not within the Judicial Branch budget,” she said.

Saufley’s assessment earned praise from members of the Maine Coalition for Sensible Drug Policy, which advocates for decriminalization and a greater focus on trauma-based treatment.

“Chief Justice Saufley made it crystal clear: every available dollar our state has to fight the opioid crisis should go to expanding community-based services,” said Meagan Sway, policy counsel at the ACLU of Maine. “We have already spent enough on courts and punishment and jail, and it is not working.”

Saufley also urged lawmakers to provide more mental health and recovery options for youth in crisis.

“Maine trial judges will tell you that the single greatest gap in services they see in Maine’s juvenile justice courts right now is the absence of options for placement of young people who cannot go home,” Saufley said. “The need for a continuum of caring and effective placement options for these youth has never been greater. We all understand that if the only option for placement in Maine is Long Creek, which is designed for very specific circumstances, we are not doing justice for our children.”

Sway said that the ACLU hopes lawmakers “will heed the wisdom of the Chief Justice” and support legislation that invests the state’s resources into health care, prevention, and treatment — citing Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) and her forthcoming bill, An Act to Reform Drug Sentencing Laws, as a good example of legislation that calls for care rather than punishment.

Last month, the coalition published a report that includes a list of legislation, such as Warren’s bill, that will help to advance this call for care.

(Maine state government photo)

Sign up for Beacon newsletters

Our newsletter, sent each evening, curates the day's most important stories from newsrooms around Maine.