By WILL MCLENNAN
A specialised drug court in Sydney’s CBD, which prioritises drug harm minimisation programs over prison sentences, is set to expand in late September.
Established in 1999, the NSW Drug Court aims to offer an alternative to imprisonment by providing a diversionary program aimed at rehabilitating repeat offenders. This process includes a strict drug treatment plan and detoxification following a guilty plea. The Downing Centre’s drug court, which is one of four located across NSW, currently operates one day per a week and hears a relatively small number of cases – forty per year.
This planned expansion will see the Downing Centre drug court expand to a three day operation weekly from September 20. The specialist drug court will operate until the end of the year like this at which point it will shift to a full-time schedule. When in full swing next year, the number of cases heard before the court will rise 400 percent.
Mary Harrod, the CEO of the National Users and AIDS Association (NUAA), gave a mixed response.
Harrod stated, “the possibility of diversion outside of the prison system will remain constrained. Each month, about 25-40 people are in remand for drug offences in NSW. This number does not include people who are in custody for non-violent offences related to drug use such as property crime.”
“It’s great that fewer people will be placed in the prison system when it’s not necessary but the pace of systems like drug courts and diversion schemes being supported is frustratingly slow when they are proven to work and we have unconscionably high levels of Aboriginal people in custody,” Harrod continued.
Pointing out that “the previous government did not have the political courage” to implement the recommendations of the Ice Inquiry, Harrod issued a word of caution.
Harrod said, “none of these schemes does anything to address the issue of harms caused by the ‘tough on drugs’ approach NSW has taken over the past ten years.”
New South Wales’ Law Society President Cassandra Banks, meanwhile, welcomed the extension, asserting that the announcement represents a concrete step towards away from the prison pipeline.
Banks stated, “research has proven that the Drug Court program is more effective than a prison sentence when it comes to reducing the chances a defendant will reoffend. Diversionary programs, like the Drug Court, make more sense than locking people up with limited means of assisting them to tackle the issues that led to their offending.”
Participants in the drug court’s programs must adhere to a strict set of regulations. Under its current guise, participants within the diversionary program are subject to random drug tests and make frequent court appearances to prove their progress. There are consequences for failure to make progress in this scheme with the imposition of a short-term suspended prison sentence. Successful participants will have their supervision loosened over time by the drug court.
Cassandra Banks from the Law Society of NSW said, ““This process holds the offender to account for their actions, but also provides them a real opportunity to rebuild their lives.”
“The lower rate of reoffending among Drug Court participants makes the community safer and saves taxpayers the expense of keeping them locked up.”
Starting today, the NSW Drug Court will accept referrals from five local government areas (LGAs) including Waverly, Woollahra and Randwick. These regions join the current fifteen eligible LGAs for Drug Court referrals.