By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
A just released study into the effectiveness of the NSW Drug Court has found that the diversionary approach is a far more beneficial way of dealing with drug-related offenders than sending them to time in prison.
Released on 24 September 2020, The Long-Term Effect of the NSW Drug Court on Recidivism report outlines the results of a joint study conducted by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) and the UNSW National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC).
Comparing the reconviction rates of Drug Court participants with those of offenders found eligible for the program but not placed on it, researchers found the Drug Court participants had a 17 percent lower reoffending rate and took 22 percent longer to commit an offence against a person.
The current study differs from most prior drug court analyses, in that it was carried out over a longer period of time, with an average assessment consisting of 13.5 years.
NDARC Professor Don Weatherburn led the study. The former BOCSAR executive director said the findings were remarkable, considering those placed on the Drug Court program are serious offenders with long criminal records prior to being given the noncustodial option.
A short history of drug courts
Drugs courts emerged in the US in the 1980s. They were premised on the idea that if an individual’s offending is drug-related, then decreasing their consumption of these substances should reduce their involvement in crime related to drugs.
Court programs reward abstinence, while noncompliance with requirements can result in a sanction – usually a short period of incarceration.
The NSW Drug Court was established in 1999, under the provisions set out in the Drug Court Act 1998 (NSW).
Back then, the court was reserved for drug dependent offenders living in western or south-western Sydney, who’d pled guilty to a nonviolent summary offence and were likely to serve time.
Offenders who were assessed as possibly eligible for the program were placed on an initial detoxification stage. And following that, an individual would then appear in the Drug Court to plead guilty and be sentenced.
That sentence was then suspended on the proviso that the offender stick to the conditions of the program.
If there was an excess of eligible offenders, a random ballot was held to determine which individuals would move ahead with the program. In the past, the ballot occurred towards the end of preliminary assessments. Today, it takes place early in the process.
According to the court
The NSW Drug Court website outlines that these days the court sits in Parramatta, Sydney CBD and the Hunter Region.
Participants can be referred by the District Court or the Local Court. While those charged with violent or sexual crimes, or drug supply or manufacture offences are ineligible.
Offenders found eligible are then remanded in custody at the main clinic at Silverwater’s Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre to undergo detoxification and an initial two week assessment period. Following this, the offender is then sent to the Drug Court for sentencing.
Each participant is placed on an individually tailored program, which can involve treatment at a rehabilitation centre or whilst living in the community. And an individual may be required to undergo abstinence or be placed on opioid substitution therapy.
The Drug Court team consists of a judge, a DPP solicitor, a police prosecutor, a clinical nurse consultant, Legal Aid solicitors, a Community Corrections division coordinator and a court registrar. The team meets daily to receive treatment provider reports and assess participants.
A Drug Court program usually lasts for 12 months. Successful participants are rewarded along the way. This can entail being allowed to work or a decrease in supervision. Whereas those failing to comply can be sanctioned, which can consist of withdrawal of privileges or a stint on the inside.
The BOCSAR-NDARC study considered the two groups of offenders over an average period of 13.5 years. And it analysed participants’ reconviction rates in terms of any type offending, offences against a person, property offences and drug offences.
The report found that Drug Court programs result in participants taking a longer time to commit an offence against a person, but no similar results were found in terms of any other type of offending. And the study further set out that this approach leads to a significant reduction in reconvictions.
The study researches posit that the lack of positive results in terms of other offending types could be attributed to the fact that a lot early participants were heroin dependent, which is a chronic condition that may re-emerge further down the line, after court supervision has expired.
While a second possibility as to why other types of offending weren’t affected may be due to only 40 percent of program participants actually completing treatment to the court’s requirement. And if completion is more likely to reduce reoffending, then the results were marred by this lack of it.
Broader analysis to come
“It is important to remember that the Drug Court is not dealing with people who have simply dipped their toe on the water of crime,” Professor Weatherburn said in a statement. “A substantial proportion have committed serious offences and have long criminal records.”
Along with the other researchers, Weatherburn recommends that further inquiry into the effects of the NSW Drug Court is warranted. And those studies should also take into account the less expensive option of the MERIT (Magistrates’ Early Referral Into Treatment) scheme.
MERIT is available to those coming before the Local Court, who have a demonstrated issue with alcohol or drugs. This treatment program is not limited to those expected to receive a sentence, and it’s monitored by clinicians, without the intense level of surveillance the Drug Court model entails.
“Almost 1 in 20 of the treatment group had accumulated 15 or more convictions,” Professor Weatherburn further remarked in relation to his current study.
“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.”
Image obtained with the consent of the Office of the Sheriff of NSW.