Treating drug-related offenders, rather than resorting to sending them to prison, is far more effective in regard to addressing re-offending rates, according to research conducted by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW Sydney and the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR).
Drug Court participants were found to have a 17% lower reoffending rate than those not placed in the program.
Furthermore, participants in the Drug Court program took 22% longer to commit an offence against a person.
Researchers compared re-offending rates between Drug Court participants with offenders who had been deemed eligible for the Drug Court program but were not placed on it.
Offenders were monitored and followed up over an average 13.5-year period.
“It is important to remember that the Drug Court is not dealing with people who have simply dipped their toe in the water of crime. A substantial proportion have committed serious offences and have long criminal records,” states Professor Don Weatherburn, who led the study.
“Almost one in 20 of the treatment group had accumulated 15 or more convictions. Our findings therefore show that participation in the Drug Court program can have lasting positive effects on the lives of recidivist offenders and are a credit to all those involved in the Drug Court program.” he continues.
“It remains possible some unobserved difference between treatment and control groups is responsible for the results. The only way to be completely sure about the positive results would be to conduct a further randomised trial,” the researchers qualified.
In the 1980s, Drug Courts emerged in the United States in order to respond to the growing issues of court and jail congestion and drug-related crime.
The Drug Court of NSW currently sits in three locations: Parramatta, Toronto, and Sydney.
In order to be eligible for the program an accused person must:
- Be highly likely to receive a sentence of full-time imprisonment if convicted,
- Indicated a plea of guilty to the charge
- Have a drug dependency
- Be at least 18-years-of-age
- Be willing to participate
- Be referred to the program by either:
- The Campbelltown District Court, Parramatta District Court, Penrith District Court, East Maitland, Newcastle or Sydney District Court; or
- The Local Court at Windsor, Waverley, Toronto, Raymond Terrace, Penrith, Parramatta, Newtown, Newcastle, Mt Druitt, Maitland, Liverpool, Kurri Kurri, Fairfield, Downing Centre, Cessnock, Central, Campbelltown, Burwood, Blacktown, Belmont or Bankstown.
- live in an applicable Local Government Area, including:
- The Hills Shire
- Port Stephens
- City of Sydney
- City of Penrith
- City of Parramatta
- City of Newcastle
- City of Maitland
- City of Liverpool
- City of Lake Macquarie
- City of Hawkesbury
- City of Fairfield
- City of Chessnock
- City of Campbelltown
- City of Blacktown
A person will Not be eligible to access to the NSW Drug Court if he/she is charged with an offence involving violent conduct, a sexual offence, a serious drug offence being an indictable offence, or is suffering a mental condition that could prevent or restrict him/her participating in the program.
How does it work? The prescribed Court can refer offenders who to the court appear to satisfy the eligibility criteria of the drug court.
Upon being referred, and prior to the offender appearing in the Drug Court, a preliminary eligibility screening process is conducted by the Drug Court staff. At this stage, the screening process is based upon the offender’s residential address, age and the referring court.
Sometimes, there is an overflow of eligible offenders who end up being referred to the Drug Court. As a result, there is not enough available program spots available. In these instances, a weekly random selection process takes place in order to determine which offenders get a spot in the available places onto the program.
Who determines the limit of availability of places per week? This is determined by the Senior Judge who consults the court staff. It is based upon determining how many participants are currently already engaged in the Drug Court program.
A part of the process, upon the offender first appearing in the Drug Court, a preliminary assessment as to eligibility is made. This involves evaluating the drug dependency of the offender.
The criteria is outlines in the Drug Court Act 1998 and the Drug Court Regulations.
The Drug Court provide treatment, including abstinence, methadone and buprenorphine programs. These treatments can be done either in the community or residential rehabilitation.
When the offender is being assessed, Justice Health provides the offender (once he/she is successfully referred) with a preliminary health assessment. After the assessment is completed, the successful applicant enters the assessment and detoxification process. A treatment plan is then formulated for the successful applicant.
The initial assessment process takes about two weeks, which involves general and mental health assessments by Justice Health of the Local Health District.
Subsequent to this assessment process stage, the offender will be required to appear before the Drug Court where he/she will then formally enter a plea of guilty. He/she will then be sentenced by the court which will be suspended upon agreeing to undertake the program (and to comply with the same).
Upon the court deeming an offender as eligible for the program, he/she will be remanded in jail for purposes of undergoing the detoxification and assessment process. This occurs at the Drug Court Unit attached to the MRRC main clinic which is separated from the main prison population.
The purpose of the court is to adequately address drug dependencies which may have resulted in criminal offending, thus hopefully helping individuals overcome their drug dependence and criminal offending.
The initiative emerged due to the apparent lack of effectiveness of traditional approaches to crime to provide long term solutions to the cycle of drug use and crime.
The Drug Court of NSW was the first to be trialled and evaluated in Australia, beginning operation in Parramatta in February of 1999.
Instead of traditional sentencing, participants in the Drug Court program receive a plan tailored to their needs which may include treatment options such as abstinence, methadone, or buprenorphine.
The programs may be conducted in either the community or residential rehabilitation settings.
“Participants in Drug Court programs are typically subject to close monitoring, including frequent meetings with the Drug Court team and frequent testing for drug use. Progress toward abstinence is also usually rewarded in some way, while relapse or non-compliance with program conditions typically attracts a sanction,” stated the researchers.
Rewards for compliance with the program may include special privileges such as permission to work, a decrease in supervision and/or a decrease in supervision.
On the other hand, a participant’s failure to comply may result in a withdrawal of privileges, increased supervision, increased drug testing, or even imprisonment in a correctional centre.
Programs will usually last for at least 12 months, unless they are terminated earlier by reason of substantial compliance, or if the court decides that the participant is not progressing and there may be an unacceptable risk to the community that the offender will re-offend.
Such termination will result in resentencing, in which the court will take into consideration the nature of the offender’s participation in the program, any sanctions that have been imposed, and any time spent in custody during the program.
Offending statistics in relation to drug offences have either remained stable or risen over the last 24 months according to BOSCAR.
Notably, the possession and/or use of narcotics is up by 40.7%, and the possession and/or use of amphetamines is up by 19.2%.