The ACT will begin a new trial for drug and alcohol sentencing this week, favouring rehabilitation over prison time.
The alternative sentencing arrangement will accept 35 people when it begins, giving these offenders the opportunity to spend time in rehabilitation rather than prison to help reduce reoffending rates.
The trial will run through until June 2021. It is intended that this time frame will provide stakeholders an opportunity to implement a robust system that gives offenders the best opportunity for a successful outcome as well as to ensure that the model is a suitable fit for the ACT criminal justice system.
The goal of course, is to create long-term behavioural change in offenders.
Australian research as well as studies completed overseas have shown that such programmes can be highly successful for rehabilitating people whose criminal offending is caused by an underlying problem with substance abuse.
The New South Wales Drug Court
In New South Wales, a similar programme is already operating through the New South Wales Drug Court, the first of its kind in Australia, which was established in Sydney in 1999.
The Drug Court of NSW sits in three locations: Parramatta, Toronto and the Sydney CBD. It takes referrals from the Local and District Courts, dealing specifically with offenders who are dependent on drugs and who are considered to be eligible for a Drug Court program.
These offenders are given the chance to address the underlying dependency which has resulted in their criminal offending as an alternative to time behind bars.
Because there is a strong link between alcohol and drug dependency and crime, which so often becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, drug courts began to emerge around the world in the late 1980s, in the USA, the UK, Europe and Canada, and have shown to be highly efficient in turning lives around.
In fact, in 2016, Sweden announced that it was closing several of its prisons, a fact that it attributed to a decision by the Swedish Supreme Court in 2011 to give more lenient sentences for drug offences, which, in turn led to offenders being given alternative penalties or spending less time behind bars before returning to society. The Netherlands too, has had a great deal of success in treating serious drug and alcohol dependency as a health issue, rather than a crime, with a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Lower recidivism rates
A study of the New South Wales drug court, conducted by the Bureau of Crime Statistics (BOCSAR) in 2008, was also optimistic in its evaluation, showing that those who successfully completed the program were 37 per cent less likely than offenders in the comparison group to be convicted of another offence.
Of all offenders who participated in the programme, (including those who weren't successful) 17 per cent were less likely to be convicted of any further offence.
A good option
Provided the reduction of reoffending rates is paramount, rehabilitation programme should be seen as a preferred option to imprisonment; especially due to the fact prison can 'harden' offenders and teach them new ways to commit crimes, and inform them of new crimes to commit.
Alternative sentencing options still make offenders accountable – both for their criminal actions and their dependency.
And it should be borne in mind that rehabilitation programmes are much more than a 'slap on the wrist'.
Canberra's trial programme will require participants to comply with several conditions including returning to court when directed to provide an update on their rehabilitation, and to give up to three urine samples a week.
Offenders will be appointed corrections and health case officers, who will help them into services they may not have previously had access to, such as counselling, to deal with the underlying causes of their addiction and set them on a path of reintegration into society.
To qualify for a drug and alcohol treatment order, offenders must fit certain criteria including that they plead guilty to eligible offences and be sentenced to between one and four years in prison. They must also pass a suitability assessment which considers a number of criteria, including whether dependency contributed to the criminal behaviour.
The programme means participants can suspend the custodial part of a sentence in favour of a drug and alcohol treatment order and this will cover at least the first year of sentencing. If it is completed successfully, then it will be replaced by a good behaviour bond for the remainder of the sentence.
While Canberra does not have a specialist drug court, the programme will be implemented through the Supreme Court. The Magistrates Court will also have the power to refer an offender to be assessed for a drug and alcohol treatment order.
Drug dependency continues to be highly prevalent in Australia, with the 2016 national Drug Strategy Household Survey reporting that more than 3 million Australians aged 14 years and over had admitted to taking drugs.
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