Home > Dail Eireann debate. Adjournment debate - Drug Treatment Court.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Adjournment debate - Drug Treatment Court. (30 Jun 2011)

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Acting Chairman (Deputy Peter Mathews): I would be delighted to extend the time available, because we are running ahead of schedule. I will allocate ten minutes between the three Deputies. 

Deputy Joe Costello: That is excellent, thank you. We will be as brief as possible. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The Drug Treatment Court is a very interesting project. It was established in my own constituency of Dublin Central in 2001 as a pilot project. The purpose of the project was to look at people who were abusing drugs, ending up in court and receiving a conviction, and to put in place an alternative mechanism for dealing with them rather than sending them to prison. It was a restorative justice mechanism and it came under the auspices of the Courts Service. A specific judge was appointed to deal with it. It was an excellent idea and it has operated over the last ten years in one local electoral area in the north inner city.
The project has had varying degrees of effectiveness, but once the flurry of activity, enthusiasm and publicity died down following its establishment, it was left to its own devices. I do not think it achieved as much as it could. A review has been carried out over the last year and some structural proposals have been made, namely, that it would be transferred from the Courts Service directly to the clerk and deputy clerk of the District Court and Circuit Court. Instead of the Courts Service having responsibility, it would chair an advisory committee that would consist of all the relevant stakeholders, including the Garda, the HSE, the City of Dublin VEC, the Probation Service and the Courts Service itself.
While the proposals are welcome, the issue goes much further. There is a need for much greater awareness of the court in the communities affected by the drugs scourge. I believe that the local drugs task force should be involved, which has not occurred to date, even though the force was involved in the court’s establishment in the first instance. Likewise, the Judiciary seems to be ignorant of the sanction and greater awareness is required here. The legal profession needs to be more aware as well, so that this can be part of the way lawyers handle cases with their clients. It seems that the north inner city is far too restrictive an area for the court to operate efficiently, and we need to extend it to a broader catchment area.
With a new Government, we should be looking at as many alternative sanctions to imprisonment as possible. The prison population has doubled since the drugs court was established. We should be going in the opposite direction, but we have been regressing. We should be examining restorative justice, community service orders and the alternative approach. The Minster should consult widely with all the relevant stakeholders, especially the public representatives who are deeply involved in their communities and are concerned with these problems. The Minister should be doing so with a view to mainstreaming the project.
Deputy Robert Dowds: I will be arguing for an extension of the area of the operation of the Drug Treatment Court to Dublin 10, Ballyfermot and Dublin 22, Clondalkin. As Deputy Costello said, the Drug Treatment Court operates only in Dublin’s north inner city. I wish to quote the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the then Deputy Dermot Ahern who in a review published by him in 2010 stated:
Participants who engage with the drug treatment programme have reduced rates of recidivism and improved health, education and social skills, which impact positively on the participants and the community. However, the review also confirmed that the DTC, as currently operating, is not dealing with sufficient numbers of participants and programme completion rates are low.
I am therefore asking the Minister for Justice and Equality to extend the operation of the Drug Treatment Court to Dublin 10 and Dublin 22, two areas of the city close to each other and which unfortunately have serious drugs problems. From talking to both the Garda and staff of the Drug Treatment Court it is clear that the crime level of those involved in the court drops steeply.
I spoke to staff in the Drug Treatment Court a few weeks ago, I was surprised to hear that even though the programme has the capacity to take on 100 candidates, it only had 35 at that point and could easily deal with more people. Extending the operation to Dublin 10 and Dublin 22, and perhaps other areas would provide more suitable candidates because not everybody who comes before the courts on drug charges is a suitable candidate for rehabilitation. For the many who are suitable it is a much better way of dealing with them. By expanding the operation of the Drug Treatment Court to these districts the Minister would be helping to tackle a growing problem in this city.
It is very clear that resources are not currently being used efficiently due to the geographical restrictions on the Drug Treatment Court. It costs the State approximately €77,200 per prisoner per year to detain a person in prison. If one compares that cost with the cost of placing someone in the Drug Treatment Court programme at less than a fifth of that figure, there is the potential to make considerable savings to the Exchequer - which we are all being asked to do at present - while placing drug addicts in a programme that gives them the opportunity to escape the cycle of drugs and crime into which they have fallen, and which imprisonment will almost certainly not solve due to the power of the addiction they are under. This is a no-brainer.
We must move to tackle the inefficient use of resources currently occurring due to the geographical restrictions on the work of the Drug Treatment Court programme. I ask the Minister to examine the issue thoroughly and to give me a “Yes” or a “No” answer on whether he will expand the geographical area of the court, to include the areas we have suggested or indeed elsewhere. Should the Minister intend to proceed with this, will he give me a timeframe for when this will occur?
Deputy Michael Conaghan: I am grateful to Deputies Costello and Dowds for sharing their time. The recent UN report on drug related deaths is a very stark warning based on evidence of the number of drug related deaths. Ireland is at twice the EU average for drug related deaths. These shocking statistics must prompt us to look again at strategies and ways of tackling the situation, to which the UN report draws attention.
I too believe, like my colleagues and many other Members, that the Drug Treatment Court programme can be a key part of such a strategy. There are short and straightforward explanations as to how the strategy works but its simplicity should not belie its vast potential. The Drug Treatment Court programme is currently under-used and under-valued. We believe that the strategy and the scheme offers real opportunities to avoid the cycle of drug addiction, crime and imprisonment and in its place, those who are selected to participate learn new strategies and new skills and are offered opportunities, perhaps leading to job opportunities and breaking the cycle and living clean. It has a great deal to commend it.
We are appealing to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, to look at the geography of where the scheme operates and to extend the scheme and work towards including a broader geographic part of the city in it. We ask him to use the scheme, with all its potential, because like the other Deputies, I believe that the proper rolling out of the scheme can save the lives of young people and help to break the cycle of drug related deaths.
Deputy Willie Penrose: I thank Deputies Joe Costello, Robert Dowds and Michael Conaghan for raising this important issue. I understand the replies are in transit. I offer my apologies for any delay.
On behalf of the Minister for Justice and, Equality, I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter, in which they all have a long-term interest. The Government’s approach to tackling the problem of drug misuse is through a co-ordinated and integrated approach under our National Drugs Strategy (interim) 2009-2016. Responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the NDS is under the remit of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Róisín Shortall.
The strategy seeks to tackle the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs in a comprehensive and integrated way through a pillar-based approach of drug supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research measures. 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.
The Government believes that the actions set out in the strategy continue to facilitate a planned and monitored approach to achieving the overall strategic objective and aims of our drug policy. The current drugs strategy is an interim one as work, which is being overseen under the remit of the Department of Health, is well underway in the development of a new combined policy framework which will address both the issues of alcohol and illicit drugs in a new combined policy framework.
The Drug Treatment Court, which originally operated on a pilot basis in the north inner city of Dublin, operates in Dublin 1, 7 and parts of Dublin 3. The court uses a multi-disciplinary approach involving staff from a range of 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 months. It is aimed at people with drug addiction problems who come before the District Court on minor criminal charges linked to their drug addiction and who plead guilty or have been convicted of the charges. To be successful the participant needs to demonstrate a willingness to become free of non-prescribed drugs and to make a permanent change in lifestyle. Assessments carried out to establish suitability for inclusion on the programme take an average of 10 weeks. The main incentive for participants is the knowledge that outstanding charges will be struck out if 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 includes 12 months post-graduation supervision. There is no formal procedure in place to monitor offences beyond that period, however, 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 officer, an addiction nurse, a Garda liaison officer and education-training representative and counsellors.
The Department of Justice and Equality completed a review of the operation of the Drug Treatment Court in 2010 which provided evidence that the court can have encouraging outcomes. Participants who engaged with the programme had reduced rates of recidivism and improved health, education and social skills which impacted positively on themselves, their families and the community.
However, the review also expressed serious concerns relating to the throughput and graduation levels from the court which have not come close to achieving the volume originally expected. It should be noted that on the establishment of the court in 2001, the planning committee had envisaged a potential enrolment of 100 participants in the first year. From establishment to date, 236 persons have participated in the programme with only 36 graduates. A further 209 persons were referred but found to be unsuitable to participate in the programme.
The Drug Treatment Court programme is a restorative justice initiative and the success of such programmes should not and cannot be assessed simply in terms of throughput. Nonetheless, it was clear from the review and the data that some adjustment of its operations was essential. The review identified particular issues to be addressed in terms of the management and operation of the court to fulfil its potential by both increasing the numbers participating in the programme and the numbers who successfully complete it.
Since the report was published a good deal of work has been done to implement its recommendations. An advisory committee chaired by the Courts Service and comprising senior staff members of An Garda Síochána, the HSE, the Probation Service and the City of Dublin VEC was established to monitor and report on implementation. Significant effort has gone into promoting the court and to developing the programme itself to achieve improved outcomes within the existing catchment area. The committee is exploring the further expansion of the court. However, this can only be done in line with the availability of the necessary services, particularly the essential drug treatment services to be agreed and provided by the HSE.
The Drug Treatment Court programme has also been redesigned. The new programme contains a set timeframe and deadline for participants progressing through the four steps. The participants should complete the programme in a maximum of three years with a view to remaining drug free.
I appreciate that the Deputies realise the value the court can bring 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 these people along the road to recovery. The team’s commitment is very genuine and wholehearted. The positive outcomes that can be achieved must be taken into account. The Minister for Justice and Equality has indicated that all of these factors will be borne in mind in determining what happens in relation to the court. The Department of Justice and Equality report completed last year recommended that the programme continue for a further two years subject to implementation of the recommendations. The Minister informs me that this will be subject to review in 2012 to ensure that the necessary adjustments are delivering results.
Adjournment Debate - Drug Treatment Court
30 June 2011
Vol. 737 No. 2

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