The NSW Drug Court: How Does It Work?
Many offenders who enter the criminal justice system have a drug problem. Even if they are not arrested for a drug crime, their drug addiction is the root explanation for their criminal conduct. As Senior Judge Roger Dive observed, people with drug problems “frequently repeat a pattern of offences, so they continually steal cars, or break into hairdressers or steal from parked motor vehicles.” They amass criminal records over a period of decades. They are in and out of jail, can’t hold jobs, and cause harm to their health and to their family relationships.
Nobody wants such a destructive lifestyle. Too often, drug dependent offenders commit crimes because they lack the resources to overcome dependency. It isn’t realistic to tell offenders, “You should just stop doing drugs.” If kicking an addiction could be accomplished by scolding, there would be no addicts.
For years, the criminal justice system responded to drug dependent offenders by sending them to jail. The offenders received no treatment or counseling. Upon release, they returned to the only life they knew how to live: the life of a drug addict. The cycle of crime started all over again, at great cost to society, and the criminal justice system provided no effective opportunity to break that cycle.
A Better Approach: Drug Courts
Nearly everyone agrees that drug users are more likely to benefit from rehabilitation than incarceration. The NSW Drug Court program is designed to give drug users the treatment and other resources they need to end their drug dependency. Studies show that intense supervision of offenders in the Drug Court program reduces both drug abuse and criminal behavior.
The traditional system locks up offenders and hopes for the best when they are released. Although they may be released to parole, drug dependent offenders are likely to breach parole if they do not receive serious drug treatment that helps them learn how to make positive lifestyle changes.
Drug Court is a means of providing intensive supervision and services to drug dependent offenders as an alternative to lengthy custodial sentences. Services focus on drug rehabilitation to overcome dependency, but other services that might be needed to help offenders stay “clean” include assistance with housing, education or training, and family support.
After being referred to drug court, offenders receive an initial sentence, but the sentence is suspended. If they fail the drug court program, they serve that sentence. If they fulfill the requirements of the program, they receive a final sentence, which may or may not be a custodial sentence. More importantly, offenders who complete the program are given the tools they need to move their lives forward without dependence on drugs.
Eligibility for Drug Court
At present, the NSW Drug Court program is available to offenders who live in one of the following Local Government Areas:
- Lake Macquarie
- Port Stephens
- The Hills Shire
Offenders must be referred to Drug Court by a Local or District Court that is authorised to make a referral. Presently, District Courts in six locations and Local Courts in twenty-three locations have that authority.
The offender must take responsibility for his or her criminal conduct by expressing a willingness to enter a guilty plea. To be eligible for Drug Court, an offender must be:
- age 18 or older;
- facing a likely sentence of fulltime custody;
- dependent on prohibited drugs; and
- willing to participate in the program
Offenders are not eligible if they are charged with a violent offence or certain sex crimes and drug trafficking offences. Offenders who have mental disabilities that would restrict their ability to participate in the program are not accepted for Drug Court. Finally, offenders who have recently participated in the Drug Court program will usually be disqualified from participating again.
Drug Court Program
The Department of Public Prosecutions will sometimes oppose acceptance of an individual into the Drug Court program. The Court will review the circumstances, including the offender’s criminal record, to minimize the risk that a violent or dangerous offender will be allowed to participate.
If the Drug Court accepts an offender, the offender is placed in custody in a special unit that is separated from main jail inmates. During a two week custodial period, the offender detoxifies under medical supervision. The offender is assessed during that time to assure the offender’s willingness to participate and suitability for the program.
A treatment plan is devised during the assessment period. The treatment plan may require an offender to enter a residential rehabilitation centre or to live in the community at a place approved by the Court. The plan may permit treatment in a methadone program or it may require abstinence from drug use. All treatment plans include:
- drug counseling;
- drug testing; and
- intense supervision.
Offenders are initially required to devote all their time to the Drug Court program and are not allowed to be employed. Offenders who do well in the program may be rewarded with the opportunity to seek and hold a job and to remain in the community with relaxed supervision. The ultimate goal is to give offenders the skills to maintain a healthy, drug-free lifestyle so they can gain employment and become self-sufficient.
Offenders who breach the rules can be sanctioned or terminated from the program. An offender who is terminated must serve the sentence that was initially imposed. An offender who succeeds in the program will be resentenced. The new sentence often includes no custodial component.
The Need for More Drug Court Resources
Unfortunately, rehabilitation facilities typically have long waiting lists, and the nearest one may be some distance from a drug offender’s home. People who live in some parts of NSW are ineligible for Drug Court because communities have not invested in the treatment facilities that are essential to the program’s success. The Dubbo Regional Council, for example, has allocated funds for a Drug Court and a rehabilitation center, but rehabilitation services aren’t expected to be available until December 2019.
While many areas with large populations have access to Drug Court programs, there are still too many NSW residents who face lengthy incarceration when rehabilitation would be a better alternative. An expansion of the Drug Court program would serve the interests of NSW by reducing the cost of imprisonment while helping drug users become productive members of the community.