Drug Court in NSW hits 20 year milestone

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Drug Court is an alternative to prison for people who commit non-violent crime relating to their drug addiction. Instead of serving their sentence in jail, people who are accepted onto the Drug Court program are able to live in the community under supervision of a strict and rigorous program designed to rehabilitate them and prepare them to live a life free from drugs. Drug Court has been in NSW for 20 years this month.

At Samaritans we have delivered multiple support services for men and women exiting prison over the last 25 years, led by manager Helen Fielder-Gill. Helen’s Croakey article about recidivism and changes to the disability support pension can be read here.

The success of Drug Court is often discussed in terms of the cost savings to government and community. Too often we’re lost in the numbers and we miss seeing the people. The faces. The human lives that can change from this program.

Helen Fielder-Gill writes:

For 15 years I’ve worked with people coming out of prison.

Their faces often show a mix of relief and despair.

Every one of these people has faced either childhood trauma or violence, or is living with complex mental health issues.

They have been locked up – ‘done their time’, so to speak – and upon release they face a world often with little support, no money and nowhere to go.

For people exiting the prison system after serving for drug-related offences, their chances of living a life free from drugs is slim. Family and supportive relationships have often broken down prior to or during their imprisonment, so when released from jail they face a daunting world where the only people they know are drug users.

Knowing this, it is easy to see how people with drug addiction cycle in and out of the prison system, some for their entire lives.

Drug Court saves lives

I firmly believe that drug dependent offenders should be treated from a health and therapy approach, not a punitive prison approach.

A great shame in NSW is that Drug Court, a life-changing program, is currently only available to those living in Sydney and the Hunter region.

This article from the Newcastle Herald explains in clear, succinct detail how the court works, specifically the Hunter Drug Court, which is local to us at Samaritans.

In 2013, at the time of opening NSW’s third Drug Court, located in central Sydney, then-Attorney General Greg Smith said he would like to see more Drug Courts opening in regional centres. To date there are still only three.

Government has been slow to increase the number of Drug Courts in NSW, despite promising words from politicians like Greg Smith.

There is currently a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the provision of drug rehabilitation services in regional, rural and remote New South Wales. In June, Radio National did a program on the lack of rehabilitation and Drug Court programs in regional and rural Australia, including a recording of the Inquiry’s visit to Dubbo.

The community of Dubbo has been calling for a different approach to drug-related crime for many years. The number of people admitted to the local emergency department in Dubbo while under the influence of methamphetamine (Ice) has increased by 2000% in 8 years.

Another Radio National segment recently explored strategies to break the cycle of drug related crime. The stories on the program echo the stories I hear every day – incarceration as punishment does not rehabilitate drug offenders.

There is speculation at what the holdup is in funding more Drug Courts in NSW. One interviewee in the Radio National program, former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdry, attributes the delay to politicians not wanting to appear soft on crime. He rightly points out that plenty of money is spent on policing, while a significantly less amount is spent on trauma and addiction.

The success of Drug Court is often discussed in terms of the cost savings to government and community.

While I’m not disputing the importance of calculated government spending, focusing the success of Drug Court on the amount of money saved dehumanises the people who take part in the program.

Throughout history, people who’ve committed crimes have been stripped of their personhood and identified as numbers in a system. If society doesn’t see an addicted offender as first a person, nor get encouraged to understand their lived experiences of trauma and mental illness, governments can continue to delay investment in crucial rehabilitation and support services. In such a situation, everyone loses.

Supporting addicts through recovery is about more than money

Over the years as I’ve worked at Samaritans to support people exiting prison to get their lives back on track, I’ve become well-acquainted with Drug Court.

It is a hard and gruelling program and those that make it to the end acquire a control and resilience even they didn’t know they had. I’ve seen people with the best intentions to get clean start the program and end up back in prison. But more importantly, I’ve seen people who lives have been restored.

One of those people is Carmen*.

I met Carmen 8 years ago when she came to Samaritans having just come out of prison. She was struggling with finding somewhere to live as well as all the other things that go with starting your life from scratch. Her relationship with her family was in tatters and her relationship with her partner was also not in the best place. They were both using drugs and the paranoia and chaos that go with drug use was taking over their lives. It is always difficult working with people who are in addiction in a partnership as they keep pulling each other back into the dark places.

Samaritans has supported her at different times over the years and I’ve made sure that whenever she came to us we had an open door.

Before being accepted into Drug Court, Carmen experienced a revolving door between addiction, homelessness and prison. In that way her story is not unique.

Carmen has a powerful story that I share here with her permission.

I’ve had a long history of drugs in my life.

I lived on the streets in Sydney, it was a long way away from my family up north.

It wasn’t always that way. I grew up in a family with money; I’ve had nice cars and I’ve travelled. I used to sing, I was in a gospel group. I always thought I’d save the world.

But I got so low, it got very ugly. Drugs will do that to you. They rip everything from underneath you and turn you into a shell. You’d sell anything you own to get the next hit.

Drugs go hand in hand with jail. When I was first released everything was good, my partner and I had been clean for a lot of years and then I brought it back into the home. It crept in and it ruined my family. My son ended up going to my mum and my sister.

I was in and out of jail, using (drugs); we just wandered the streets in despair when we were homeless, and that went on for about five years. It’s not an easy life.

Your heart aches when you don’t have a family. When you walk past a house being homeless you can smell the home cooked meals, but you know you have to go to a shelter to eat.

The last time I was locked up, in 2015, I went into the ballot for Drug Court.

Drug Court and Samaritans have saved me. My partner and I both went on the Drug Court program, we wanted a better life and it gave that to us. It saved us from destruction.

At our graduation from Drug Court, my partner said that without this program, we’d be dead, and that’s the truth.

Drug Court gave us hope. It’s hard but it gives you structure and it teaches you to do something meaningful in the community. I’ve learned skills to work and the importance of making my own money.

I’ve been clean for two years and I’m getting my life back. We’ve come a long way and we’re really happy where we are.

I’ve got my son, we’ve got a home. My partner has just got a job. God’s been amazing. I’ve started going to church and everything we’ve got now we really appreciate because we’d been homeless for so long.

We’ve struggled for a lot of years and I just want my future to be happy. I’m happy that my family is proud of us and that I have love and family around me.”

Carmen’s story still amazes me to this day. She has survived so much in the years I have worked with her. She took herself to a place that seemed almost too terrible to ever come out the other side.

People seem to have a breaking point where they reach a last resort. Carmen reached that place and came back from what seemed to be certain death and is now leading an amazing new life.

This is the true benefit of Drug Court. I’ve seen it change lives. It’s about time everyone experiencing addiction and facing charges of drug-related crime in NSW had equal access to renew their lives through Drug Court, just like Carmen.

As a society we cannot cycle drug addicted offenders in and out of the prison system and expect something to change. Addiction is deeply rooted in mental health and trauma and without proper rehabilitation and holistic support, the cycle cannot be broken.


*Name has been changed to protect identity.