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Drug courts have existed in America since the 1980's and were first established in Australia in 1999 with the aim of diverting drug offenders from the criminal justice system and to redirect them into treatment. Mainly based on the USA model of drug courts in the way that treatment is community-based and monitored by a judicial order. The Australian model differs by allowing for not only first-time offenders to be treated, but also allows long-time offenders with property offences to be offered this treatment before incarceration (Kutin et al., 2010, pp152).
Drug courts were first developed in New South Wales then in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. These courts were established under specific legislation in each different state and their goal is to 'help offenders overcome their drug dependence and thus end their associated criminal behaviour through court enforced and supervised treatment programs' (Freeman et al. 2000). Previous to the establishment of drug courts, cases were dealt with cautioning programs such as the CREDIT (court referral evaluation for drug intervention and treatment) program which was exercised through the courts before the drug courts were put into practise. This program, which commenced in 1998, was used to target non-violent offenders with drug related problems. These offenders were diverted to ways of treatment as a condition of bail. Once the offender was convicted, sentencing could be deferred for up to six months, so the offender could take part in treatment conditions. (Kutin et al., 2010, pp152).
Drug courts exist in not only in the USA and Australia but also in the UK and Canada. These courts run a little different to the model in Australia. The drug court in Glasgow, Scotland share similar aims and objectives to the Victorian drug court.
Victorian Drug Court
The Victorian Magistrates court has multiple specialised divisions. One of these divisions is the Victorian drug court. This court was first established as a trial and later became a specialist division in 2002 and is located in Dandenong. The main objective of this court is 'to develop increased stability for offenders as well as providing assistance in reintegrating them into the community.' it tries to achieve this aim by sentencing the convicted to a drug treatment order (DTO). A drug treatment order is a two year program that consists of two parts; custodial and supervision and treatment. The custodial part consists of the offender being involved in a custodial period that is served in the community. The supervision and treatment is the more intense part of the order as the offender is required to be subjected to regular drug testing, counselling appointments and regular appointments before the drug court. In order for an offender to be eligible for a DTO, first they must pass certain criteria under Section 18Z of the Sentencing Act 1991. Regulations of this act include that the defendant must plead guilty, be facing an immediate term of imprisonment, place of residence is within a postcode specified in the Government Gazette, dependant on drugs or alcohol and this contributed to the commission of the offence, the offence was not of a sexual or infliction of bodily harm nature and the defendant is not subject to a Parole Order, Combined Custody and Treatment Order, or Sentencing Order from the Supreme or County Courts. The defendants are also assessed by two separate experts with each expert writing a report on how the offender will or will not gain something for the DTO (Magistrates, 2010).
The Victorian Drug Court has proved to be a positive addition to the Victorian Legal System. Offender are given a beneficial way of recovering from their addiction as well as introduced back into the community. As the DTO suspends the custodial sentence, offenders are also given a chance to receive compulsory treatment. This creates a safer community as well as more effective legal system with drug cases that would normally take up time in the Magistrates court are being dealt with as a separate entity, relieving the Magistrates Court of extra cases and more time to focus on other cases.
The Drug Court of Victoria contains both strengths and weaknesses. Some of these weaknesses include the fact that a person has to plead guilty in order to be accepted into the Drug Court division. However, it would be thought that if a person is not willing to plead guilty to an offence, they would not take their DTO seriously and the DTO would be ineffective. Another weakness of the Drug Court is that in order for a person to be accepted into this division must be within a postcode where a Division of the Drug Court operates. This is not entirely fair for people with drug offences that live outside the stated areas.
Even though the Victorian Drug Court has weaknesses it also has many strengths. One strength is the division helps release the congestion on the already busy Magistrates' Court. This is a great benefit as more people will have access to timely justice. Anotherstrength of the Victorian Drug Court is that the drug division does not accept persons who have committed crimes that contain a sexual or violent nature. Although, one would think that if a person was under the influence of a drug or alcohol while committing this offence then the sanction of imprisonment would be ineffective and when this person is put back into the community, they are more likely to reoffend.
New South Wales Drug Court
The drug court of New South Wales was the first drug court to be introduced in Australia. This court, just like the other drug courts in Australia began as a trial and after positive evaluations, it was continued. The New South Wales drug court is run under the Drug Court Act 1998 and its set objectives are, as stated under Section 3 of the Act; 'to reduce the drug dependency of eligible persons; to promote the re-integration of such drug dependent persons into the community; and to reduce the need for such drug dependent persons to resort to criminal activity to support their drug dependencies.' (reference) the New South Wales drug court operates in a similar manner to the Victorian drug courts with defendants needing to pass similar criteria in order to be eligible to be considered for a drug court program. If the defendant does not pass the set criteria, the offender is referred back to the Magistrates court for re-evaluation.
As each Australian drug court is under different state jurisdiction, differences are to be expected when the New South Wales drug court is compared to the Victorian drug courts. One of these differences is the way that the treatment program is implemented. The New South Wales program consists of a three-phase program that normally takes up to 12 months to complete. New South Wales Magistrates can also grant bail to offenders with less significant drug offences and place them on the MERIT (Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment) program. Offenders must complete compulsory treatment as part of the merit bail conditions. The New South Wales State has also has implemented a Youth Drug and Alcohol Court. This court was created in 2000 and functions, not under the Magistrates Court but, under the Children's Court instead. These differences would be a great addition to the Victorian Model. Both provide the New South Wales legal system with an effective way to resolve these cases in a timely manner.
Glasgow Drug Court
Another country that has a drug court as part of their court system is Scotland. Scotland's drug court is based in Glasgow and comparable to the Victorian Drug Court but has its own unique view on the process and the detail that goes into the selection of the convicted persons into this program also the age of the persons accepted into the program.
The Drug Court of Glasgow is similar to the Victorian Drug Court in that the person has to plead guilty in order to be accepted into the Drug Court programme. However in Glasgow, the selection process is much more detailed and vigorous as the charged person has to be analysed. Firstly even before the case is in the normal procedure of the courts they must be accepted by the fiscal who then has to approve the charged person to be accepted to be analysed by the Criminal Justice Social Worker. The Criminal Justice Social Worker analysis the charged person and determine which arm of the Drug Court this person will be accepted into (Glasgow Gov. 2009). These pre court procedures help the Glasgow Drug Court 'weed' out the persons that will either fail the program or not achieve the benefits of the program. This would be a great strategy for the Victorian Drug Court as there are no formal pre court procedures to 'weed' out the persons that will not receive the rehabilitation benefits of a DTO (Magistrates, 2009). If Victoria introduced these pre court procedures into the system, surely the effectiveness and success of the program would increase. On the other hand, if pre court procedures are introduced, then the state would have to invest more money into the Drug Court program, this could be problematic as the funds for the supervisors and educators could be lowered and this could result in a decline in the quality of the program.
The Drug Court of Glasgow mainly focuses on persons aged around the age of 21(Glasgow Government, 2009) this is a great idea for the Victorian Drug Court, because in Victoria most offences dealing with drugs are situated within this age group (ABS, 2001). Also, one would think if a 40 year old person is being charged with a drug offence that will ultimately result in imprisonment, then it would seem that that person has been in the drug business for a while and rehabilitation success would be quite low. However, instead of discriminating between age groups another arm for younger offenders should be created In the Drug Court division, so that there is no discrimination between age groups, and rehabilitation is provided to all persons.
The Victorian Drug Court has many strengths and weaknesses but overall the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. The Victorian Drug courts allow offenders to overcome their addictions and to allow them safely back into the community. Though the Victorian Drug Courts could be improved further by taking ideas from other drug courts interstate and internationally. The Drug Court of New South Wales has the MERIT Program, which relieves the drug court of congestion from more minimal cases. The New South Wales Children's Court also has a Youth Drug and Alcohol Court, allowing youth cases to be heard in this court, once again relieving the Drug court of cases to be heard. Victoria could also take ideas from the Glasgow drug courts by focusing on youth cases rather than a complete range of ages (Magistrates' 2009).