With the commencement of the Drug Court just over a fortnight ago on 3 December, there are high hopes that this will be another tool to protect the community and support individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system due to problematic drug and alcohol use.
The commencement of the court has started a conversation in the community about the best treatment options for people, and whether or not there should be compulsory drug and alcohol treatment programs included as part of the response. It is completely understandable that families with loved ones who are struggling with problematic drug use would see compulsory treatment as a potential answer.
It is more surprising that the Canberra Liberals are suggesting that compulsory therapeutic drug treatment should be considered as part of the introduction of the drug court given there is little evidence that this is effective and the ACT already has a system in place to deal with impaired decision making. The ACT Drug and Alcohol system has a wide range of services to help people overcome problematic drug use. It operates successfully because it is based on voluntary involvement. People approach services when they are ready and in the right frame of mind to engage meaningfully. For those people who come into contact with the criminal justice system, diversion is already one of the responses.
The ACT’s Drug Court will now provide a further option and pathway where rehabilitation is a real alternative to jail time for more serious offences. This idea is based on a wealth of evidence. Evaluation of similar courts have seen a significant reduction in the number of people convicted of another offence after going through the process. This was also true for people who did not successfully complete the program.
We know that people are more likely succeed when engaging in treatment on a voluntary basis because they are empowered to change their lives and are given the tools to do this. We know that by supporting people and bringing them back into society they can gain control of their lives. Conversely, there is little evidence to show that compulsory rehabilitation and treatment programs are effective in supporting rehabilitation. Studies have concluded that evidence on how effective compulsory treatment is inadequate and inconclusive.
The World Health Organisation suggests that the only time that this should be considered is for short-term emergencies and should not go beyond an initial withdrawal process. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime points to considerable concerns about the approach suggesting it there is no evidence of its therapeutic success and is expensive.
Here in the ACT, we are subject to a Human Rights Act which enshrines a range of individual rights. We already have a framework to manage issues where people are impacted by impaired decision making, whether as a result of cognitive issues or due to the impact of mental health issues. In these instances, the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal constitutes tribunals consisting of experts, and supported by legal mechanisms such as the Public Advocate and Legal Aid, to consider whether or not individuals meet the threshold of lack of decision-making capacity and are at risk to themselves or others.
The most important conversation to have with the commencement of the drug court is whether or not there is an adequate range of treatment and rehabilitation programs for people to access through this, and to learn what we can about ways that we can stop people from ending up in the criminal justice system to start with.
Many families’ distress stems from a lack of services early in the life of a substance user, and there is a need to ensure that the ACT sector is not only adequately funded to meet the need that will be generated by referrals from the court, but also respond to the needs of people not engaged with the criminal justice system.
It is essential that these programs are integrated into the ACT alcohol and drug service approach and this sees an increase in services for people who need help across the board. Evidence from within the ACT suggests that waiting lists are a big reason why people disengage from the system, and see it as not suitable for their needs. Waiting lists of around one month are common in our system and this presents possibly the most significant barrier to people accessing treatment when they need it.
I think the programs promoted through ACT Drug Court should be evidence-based and supported by a well-resourced service system to give people the best chance for rehabilitation. What do you think?
Rebecca is on the Board of the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy. She is also a community member of the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal. She is a candidate for the ACT Greens for the 2020 Territory election.