The ACT Government has introduced legislation that will allow courts to issue “substance dependent offenders” with a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Order (DATO), in a move to create a new dedicated Drug and Alcohol Court (DAC).
The new option for sentencing will aim to reduce recidivism where an offender’s substance addiction has formed a large part of their offending.
“The DAC’s sentencing option will provide both targeted and structured health and justice interventions for offenders whose criminal activities have been driven by substance abuse issues,” Attorney General Gordon Ramsay said.
Directions Health Services, a community organisation delivering programs to those with drug, alcohol or other addictions, commended the ACT Government on the establishment of the DAC. CEO Bronwyn Hendry said, according to the ACT Criminal Justice Statistical Profile as at September 2016, alcohol was involved in nearly 24% of all charges laid in the ACT in the five years prior, with young men aged 18-21 and 25-29 particularly prevalent. The 18-29 age group were particularly over-represented in charges laid from apprehensions for illicit drug offences.
“Where alcohol and other drugs are the main underlying cause of a criminal act, it is more beneficial for our community that we have systems in place to help people overcome substance dependence,” Ms Hendry said.
“We support the eligibility criteria for the DAC, which is targeting people who commit more serious offences.”
She said while there is “strong evidence” from around the world that an early diversion approach can save taxpayer dollars through reduced recidivism, improved wellbeing outcomes, reduced judicial and incarceration costs and reduced reliance on welfare services, the DAC only meets the needs of a small number of people in contact with the criminal justice system.
“Directions Health advocates for a full continuum of services, including pre-charge diversion for low level offenders and a health first approach that includes decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of illicit drugs and drug use. This would provide an opportunity for earlier intervention in a person’s offending, before the offences become more serious,” Ms Hendry said.
ACT Law Society president Chris Donohue said the establishment of a DAC is an important step in achieving harm minimisation and rehabilitation for those whose offending is influenced or motivated by drug dependency.
“Drug courts have the ability to reduce recidivism. The experiences of the NSW Drug Court at Parramatta provides proof for the success of their more intensive and focused intervention,” Mr Donohue said. “The Society understands the Drug Court in NSW has been very successful.”
The ACT Government has said there will be “heavy compliance measures” imposed on offenders, to “ensure they succeed in addressing the substance abuse issues”, which the ACT Law Society insists should be dealt with by a judicial officer, and that measures should allow for judicial discretion, as to avoid “arbitrary outcomes”.
The DAC is expected to be operational towards the end of 2019.
Shane Rattenbury, Minister for Justice and Minister for Corrections, said by addressing a person’s addictions, the government was working towards keeping the community safe, preventing drug-related crime and ending the prison cycle. The establishment of the DAC is an item in the Labor-Greens Parliamentary Agreement.