Home > The Irish Drug Treatment Court - a view from the bench.

Connolly, Johnny (2007) The Irish Drug Treatment Court - a view from the bench. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 24, Winter 2007 , pp. 22-23.

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A European conference on quasi-coerced treatment and other alternatives to imprisonment, organised by the Council of Europe Pompidou Group and the Romanian National Anti-Drug Agency, took place in Bucharest, Romania, on 11–12 October. Below is an edited version of the presentation made by Judge Bridget Reilly of the Irish Drug Treatment Court (DTC). 

Judge Reilly was appointed to the DTC in 2001.  Introducing her paper, she said: ‘I have viewed the awful cycle of drug abuse – offending – imprisonment – release – drug abuse – offending – imprisonment, and was struck with a realisation of the hopelessness and ineffectiveness of the situation.  The cycle is self-perpetuating and in turn influences a wider pool, a new generation, increasingly in larger numbers and with more and more associated and serious violence. It seemed obvious that imprisonment failed to break the cycle or to act as a deterrent to further offending. Ultimately the interests of the public at large are not met and trust in, and collaboration with, the criminal justice system is undermined.’ 

Background

The DTC, established as a permanent court in 2006 after a five-year pilot phase,  deals with offenders who have either pleaded guilty or been convicted of minor crimes committed as a consequence of drug abuse. Referral to the DTC is with the consent of the defendant and may be made at the request of the defence or a probation officer, or at the discretion of the presiding judge.  At present, such offenders must have resided for a minimum of six months in the Dublin North Inner City area, an area which has suffered a particularly severe drug abuse problem.


The primary aim and purpose of the court is ‘the reduction of crime through rehabilitation of the offender but not excluding punishment should the circumstances so warrant’.1  The DTC is a full criminal court, but operates differently from any other court in that the offender is obliged to comply with terms of a programme tailored to his or her requirements and circumstances. A multi-agency team, monitored regularly by the judge, and comprising a court co-ordinator, probation officer, Garda officer, clinical health nurse and an education officer, delivers this programme. Unlike many other jurisdictions, the Irish DTC includes an education element in the rehabilitation process. 

The role of the judge in the DTC

The experience of drug courts internationally has highlighted the role of the judge in the whole process.  In the DTC the judge monitors the progress of the participants on the programme and provides leadership, motivation and enforcement and imposes sanctions.   The team meets with the defendant at a pre-court meeting. In the early stages of the programme the defendant appears in court every week but this is reduced as s/he progresses through three separate phases. At the hearing in open court there is direct dialogue between the offender and the bench.  The participant often volunteers a written submission to explain his/her position. Over time a full picture of the participant becomes apparent to the court. Through continued interaction between judge and participant, a relationship develops and it is important that the participants appear regularly in front of the same judge. However a judge cannot sit for 52 weeks of the year and so the President of the District Court has appointed two other judges to sit in the DTC. In this way the essential consistency and continuation of judicial input should be maintained and the energy, interest and skill of these judges can help in the development of all aspects of the court’s work.   

Sanctions and incentives

Following the pre-court meeting and appearance in open court the Court proceeds to make its order.  The court uses a ’carrot and stick‘ approach to encourage and reward progress, compliance and engagement with the programme and to sanction failure to comply. The ultimate sanction, and one of last resort, is an order terminating the offender’s participation on the programme.  A number of lesser sanctions are also available to the judge.  

The judge has to draw a balance between support, encouragement and sanctions.  This will depend on the character, personality, ability and endeavours of the participant and, indeed, on his/her mood or vulnerability.  My own experience accords with research findings which suggest that verbal praise is the most valuable currency. One must always be aware too that other participants present are watching and learning how the system works. They are also assessing how others are being treated so that the system must be, and must be perceived to be, enforced properly and fairly. 

Assessing outcomes

Participants graduate when, at the end of Phase 3, they are drug free, have not

re-offended and have complied with the obligations of each phase of the programme.  At that time, all charges against them are struck out, with liberty to re-enter within 12 months if there are any breaches of ongoing obligations as set out in their life plan prepared for graduation. 

Table 1   Criminal charges incurred by participants in the DTC in March 2005

Total charges incurred prior to referral to the DTC

518

Total charges incurred during the DTC programme

88

Source: An Garda Síochána, March 2005

It should be noted that all but one of the 88 charges shown in Table 1 were incurred in the initial phase of the three-phase programme. Despite the low graduation numbers, the progress and improvement in quality of life for the participants is seen to be very significant by the DTC team, considering the background of low literacy skills, low educational participation, and often difficult social and family history. The court is considering an alternative grading process so as to validate the success or quasi-success of participants who do not attain full graduation criteria, while being aware of how this could affect the motivation of participants to graduate fully. 

A personal observation

In Ireland the background of judges does not prepare them fully for dealing with the new process in this different court.  One must tread very carefully and sensitively in pursuing the role of judge in this different environment. This new departure for me has been challenging and fulfilling.  One needs large measures of optimism and a real and continuing interest in people, especially on days when the reports before the court hearing are bleak and disappointing.  On the days where progress is apparent there is real satisfaction.  In particular when we have our graduation ceremonies, there is joy and hope together with pride for the participants and their families at the hard-won achievements.  They truly deserve the respect and admiration they earn. 

Conclusion

The Drug Treatment Court is to be expanded and enlarged and we look forward to this development sooner rather than later. The DTC can only ever be part of a strategy to reduce crime.  It cannot eliminate the need for prison or other forms of restraint entirely, particularly in relation to certain crimes of a very serious nature.

(Edited by Johnny Connolly) 

1. Irish Courts Service (1999) First Report of the Drug Court Planning Committee. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Item Type:Article
Issue Title:Issue 24, Winter 2007
Date:October 2007
Page Range:pp. 22-23
Publisher:Health Research Board
Volume:Issue 24, Winter 2007
EndNote:View
Accession Number:HRB (Available)
Subjects:MM-MO Crime and law > Justice system > Court system > Drug court
HJ Treatment method > Treatment outcome
HJ Treatment method > Drugs and alcohol disorder treatment method
VA Geographic area > Europe > Ireland
MM-MO Crime and law > Criminal penalty
L Social psychology and related concepts > Inducement for participation (incentive)
L Social psychology and related concepts > Mode of participation > Involuntary (mandatory) participation

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