Dáil debates

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Adjournment Debate

Drug Treatment Court.

4:00 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Deputy Rabbitte will raise the Minister's plans - future plans - in respect of the drug treatment court. The syntax is not right but I am sure the Deputy understands the matter he submitted.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I would never seek to gainsay the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's syntax. Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the drug treatment court while it was in session and to meet some of the participants in the specially designed programme. The drug treatment court is a progressive innovation aimed at the rehabilitation of persons with addiction problems who have committed non-violent offences. It only deals with clients referred from two postal districts in the north inner city and was established as a permanent court in 2006. The aim of the court is the reduction of crime through rehabilitation of the offender, but it does not exclude punishment should the circumstances so warrant.

In addition to the judge, the drug court team comprises a court co-ordinator, a probation and welfare officer, a garda, a clinical health nurse and an education officer. The court's programme includes the provision of medical attention, counselling and educational and vocational modules. The progress of the offender on the programme is regularly monitored by the court. The judge is expected to give effective leadership and to be a motivator, enforcer and sanctioner. Each member of the team at pre-court meetings, which are held in private, provides verbal reports on aspects of the participants engagement with the programme. This could include urine screens, attendances at clinics, meetings, counselling sessions, assessments, motivation and engagement, family circumstances, medical reports and whether further charges or convictions have been brought. A full picture of the participant gradually becomes apparent to the court.

Initially defendants appear in court every week to account for their progress. Sanctions and incentives are employed by the court on a carrot and stick basis to encourage and reward progress and sanction failure to comply. The prize is avoiding a custodial sentence and having charges struck out on graduation from the programme.

The Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform recently stated to the Committee of Public Accounts:

I am disappointed with its low output and am not convinced any longer that is the way we should go. An evaluation is under way and we hope it will be completed by the end of the year. Consultation is also taking place with the Judiciary and we will see where that goes...while it was started with the best of intentions, the production level of the court does not justify extending the model elsewhere. It is not working and we must go back to the drawing board.

Does the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy John Curran, hold the same view as the Secretary General? Furthermore, I ask whether the evaluation is complete, what its conclusions are and when it will be published.

In so far as I can see, the only reason the throughput is not higher are the obstacles in the way of expanding the remit of the drug treatment court to include the entire city of Dublin. These obstacles pertain to the inability of other agencies, such as the HSE, to provide the necessary support services but they can be resolved if the political will exists to do so. I am sure the drug treatment court is an expensive innovation. However, I am equally sure it is not as expensive as the alternative of custodial care for a majority of drug abusers. Everywhere throughout urban Ireland we see the consequences of drug pushing and drug abuse and the incalculable cost of the damage being done by recidivist abusers.

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State with special responsibility for Integration and Community, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Rabbitte for raising this matter. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who sends his apologies.

The Drug Treatment Court, which originally operated on a pilot basis in the north inner city of Dublin, was placed on a permanent footing and extended to the Dublin 7 area. The court uses a multidisciplinary approach and involves a range of Government Departments and agencies charged with dealing with various aspects of the problem of drug misuse.

The court's mission is to provide supervised treatment, education and rehabilitation for offenders with drug problems, as an alternative to prison. The programme lasts for a minimum of 12 to 18 months. To be successful the participant needs to demonstrate a willingness to become free of non-prescribed drugs and make a permanent change in lifestyle. Assessments carried out to establish suitability for inclusion on the programme take on average ten weeks. The main incentive for participants is the knowledge that outstanding charges will be struck out where the participant successfully completes the programme and does not re-offend in the 12 months following graduation.

The programme operates on a points system designed to encourage the participants towards successful completion of the programme. Follow-up support for participants includes 12 months post-graduation supervision. While a formal procedure is not in place to monitor offences beyond that period, indications are that participation in the programme is linked to a decrease in criminal activity. The court operates with the assistance of an inter-agency team which includes the judge, a probation and welfare officer, an addiction nurse, a Garda liaison officer, an education-training representative and counsellors.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been carrying out a review of the operation of the Drug Treatment Court. The review is reaching completion and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was anxious that no decisions regarding the future of the court should be taken without a thorough examination of the facts. There are significant questions over the Dublin Drug Treatment Court relating to the throughput and graduation levels which have not come close to achieving what was intended on the establishment of the programme. Concern about the volume of cases led to the decision to carry out a review of the court's operations. It should be noted that on the establishment of the Drug Treatment Court in 2001, the planning committee had envisaged a potential enrolment of 100 participants in the first year. From establishment to date, a total of eight years, 228 persons have participated in the programme with only 27 graduates. A further 154 persons were referred but found to be unsuitable to participate in the programme.

This is a restorative justice initiative and success of such programmes should not and cannot be assessed simply in terms of throughput. Nonetheless, it appears from the figures that some adjustment of the court's current operations is essential. Having said that, I am sure the Deputy realises the value the Drug Treatment Court brings to the clients who come before it. The supervision is intensive and successive district judges and the court team have done an excellent, painstaking job in helping the individuals in question along the road to recovery. The team's commitment is genuine and wholehearted. The positive outcomes that can be achieved must be taken into account.

It is, therefore, important to recognise that in determining the cost effectiveness of the Drug Treatment Court many other factors come into play, rather than simply a straight comparison between treatment costs in one stream as opposed to another. For example, a participant in the Drug Treatment Court is not legally represented each time there is an appearance before the court. There are, therefore, savings to the criminal legal aid scheme which serve to offset any slight increase in costs. In addition, while people are participating in the programme, their involvement in crime is reduced, even if they do not complete the programme. These types of variable factors are also difficult to quantify.

Improved recidivism rates result in benefits to society in terms of decreases in the number of victims of crimes, in particular, crimes against property. Savings may also be demonstrated in the criminal justice system in terms of Garda time spent prosecuting, as well as court time and prison places.

This issue fits into the overall National Drugs Strategy 2009 to 2016 which I have responsibility for co-ordinating. Drug treatment courts can have a role to play in both the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders and by extension can impact positively in the fight against crime. As I stated, a review has been undertaken to examine the operation of the court, including examining best practice elsewhere to see how the court's low throughput levels could be increased. Officials at a senior level have met with representatives of the Judiciary and other relevant agencies. The report is nearing its conclusion and I will arrange to have the outcome communicated to the Deputy in due course.