NSW Drug Court Slated for Dubbo. So, How Will Its Diversionary Program Work?

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By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

The NSW government announced on 17 June that it will be expanding the Drug Court program out to the central northern NSW city of Dubbo.

The project involves a $27.9 million investment over four years, which will see the facility start operating at the site of the Dubbo courthouse in mid-2022.

The NSW Drug Court is a diversionary program that sees offenders convicted of crimes related to their use of drugs given a suspended sentence and ordered to undertake an intensive program that focuses on rehabilitation and keeping them out of prison in the long run.

The announcement comes on the back of recommendations for the reach of the Drug Court to be broadened, which were made by the Special Commission of Inquiry Into the Drug Ice and the NSW parliamentary inquiry into First Nations overincarceration and deaths in custody.

Drug courts are based on the understanding that it’s often an offender’s problematic drug use that’s driving their criminal activity, and, therefore, if this underlying issue is addressed it will in turn reduce the likelihood of their reoffending in a more effective way than prison.

The Dubbo facility is set to accompany drug courts currently operating in Parramatta, Sydney CBD and Toronto in the Hunter. And while this initiative is separate to the recent announcement that a Dubbo drug rehabilitation centre is to be established, the two facilities will be complementary.

An alternate to hard time

The Drug Court of NSW website outlines that it accepts referrals from the NSW District Court and Local Court. Those offenders referred must be drug dependent, likely to be sentenced to full time prison, have indicated they’re going to plead guilty and be willing to participate in the program.

However, not all such offenders are eligible. Those whose offending is of a violent or sexual nature, or those who’ve been charged with drug supply or manufacturing offences aren’t permitted to participate. And there are also restrictions on eligibility in terms of geographical region.

If the court decides to take on a person, they will then be remanded into custody to undergo detoxification and assessment. This takes place at the Drug Court Unit of Silverwater’s Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre, where the participants are separated from regular inmates.

A participant then appears in the Drug Court, pleads guilty and receives a suspended sentence. They’re subsequently placed on a tailored treatment program in the community or a residential rehabilitation centre, which may involve abstinence or opioid substitution therapy.

The program usually lasts 12 months. Participants are monitored and undergo drug testing, which can occur up to three times a week. Those on the program are expected to front up to court once a week during the initial stages, but this tapers off to once a month later on.

Long-term advantages

A joint NSW BOCSAR and NDAR study released last September found that overall NSW Drug Court participants were 17 percent less likely to reoffend than comparable individuals who served custodial sentences, and it also took them 22 percent longer to commit an offence against a person.

This study differed from others of the same nature as it tracked drug court participants over a longer time period, which averaged out to be 13.5 years. And the researchers concluded that the Drug Court “appears to have long-term beneficial effects” in terms of reducing reoffending.

Head of the study NDAR Professor Don Weatherburn stressed that it was important to remember that those entering the Drug Court program aren’t people who’d “simply dipped their toe on the water of crime”, as a large proportion had committed serious offences and had long records.

“Almost 1 in 20 of the treatment group had accumulated 15 or more convictions,” the former BOCSAR executive director said in a statement. “Our findings therefore show that participation in the Drug Court program can have lasting positive effects on the lives of recidivist offenders”.

A brief history of the NSW Drug Court

Drug courts initially emerged late last century in the United States, with the first facility established in Florida’s Dade County in 1989. And by mid-2003, there were 1,044 drug courts operating across the US.

Drug diversion programs have been operating in Australia since 1977. However, the NSW Drug Court wasn’t opened until 1999, with its first location being Parramatta. The drug court operating in the Hunter opened in 2011, while the Sydney CBD facility commenced operations in 2013.

The laws governing the NSW Drug Court are contained in the Drug Court Act 1998 (NSW) and the Drug Court Regulation 2015 (NSW).

Section 24 of the Act outlines that the court’s jurisdiction encompasses the criminal jurisdiction of the NSW District Court and Local Court, or any other jurisdiction vested in the court via the legislation.

These days, the team that runs the court 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 first evaluation of the NSW Drug Court, which was released by BOCSAR in 2002, found that it was “more effective than conventional sanctions in reducing the risk of further offending”.

Complementary facilities

After a long-term campaign calling for a drug rehabilitation centre to be established in Dubbo, the NSW government finally came to the table last November announcing that it would provide $7.5 million to see the facility realised.

Recently-elected Dubbo Lord Mayor Stephen Lawrence told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in July last year that a rehab centre was needed in the region, as it would give locals, especially the young, a chance to deal with problematic drug use before it gets out of hand.

On announcing the establishment of the Dubbo Drug Court, NSW attorney general Mark Speakman explained that while the local rehabilitation centre was a separate issue, the two initiatives were complementary.

“It’s likely there’ll be a separate facility that Corrective Services will run for the rehabilitation and detoxification of offenders,” the ABC quoted Speakman as saying at the time.

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