A breakthrough in dealing with alcohol-related offending?
By KIERAN FINNANE
It’s a court like no other that I’ve been in: while everyone is waiting for the magistrate, there’s banter with the offender, about his tattoos, his girlfriend, his new job. They all join in, the legal aid lawyer, the court clinician, the police prosecutor and the correctional services officer. The offender is an open-faced, smiling young man in his twenties. He’s clearly well liked.
When Magistrate David Bamber enters, the good cheer continues. He speaks directly to the offender who responds for himself. The tone is conversational. The offender remains seated.
“So you haven’t had a smoke for four weeks,” comments Mr Bamber. He reads off the results of the defendant’s urinalysis: “You’ll be clean soon.”
The offender replies with enthusiasm: he’s sure that at his next visit the readings will be near zero. He started his new job this week. Mr Bamber wants to know where and what the hours are. He’s pleased with what he hears: “What reward would you like?”
Everyone laughs – they’re all pleased. The offender hesitates.
Perhaps he’d like to not have to come to court so often, suggests Mr Bamber, that’ll help him settle into his new job.
“Excellent!” comes the reply.
“I’ll give you a go at a month,” says Mr Bamber.
His testing will continue fortnightly. If his levels get to zero, the regularity of the testing will drop as well.
“Keep it up,” urges Mr Bamber, and with another “Excellent!” the young man leaves.
Is he top of the class, the shining exception, or will there be others like him – getting their lives back on track, dealing with their drug and alcohol habits, earning their “get out of gaol cards”?
Drug offences did not bring him before the court. The charges were aggravated entry of a dwelling with intent to commit an offence, stealing, and obtaining a benefit by deception. But his drug use must have been deemed to be a significant factor in his offending, for this is the SMART Court. SMART stands for “Substance Misuse Assessment and Referral for Treatment”.
The offender’s case would have been heard in the Court of Summary Jurisdiction and his sentence deferred while he’s been given a chance to comply with his SMART orders, among them total abstinence. There’s a system of rewards, like those he received, but also sanctions: non-compliance with orders can earn gaol time.
The next offender enters. He’s older and at a glance would appear to have had a tougher life. He’s also had “bad luck” recently, as Mr Bamber notes, having been in a car crash.
“You weren’t tempted to have a steadying drink?” asks Mr Bamber.
Tempted, yes, he admits but he didn’t give in and the tests confirm this: no alcohol or drugs have been detected in his system. He’s recently missed an appointment but he had a legitimate excuse; his treatment is going well. His offences were driving with a high range blood alcohol content and driving while disqualified as well as contravening a Domestic Violence Order.
For the time being he’ll be kept on a schedule of fortnightly visits to court, which might “loosen up” later. He’s not working but otherwise is doing well. Despite the accident, “you haven’t been stressed into drinking or doing drugs, well done”, says Mr Bamber encouragingly.
The next offender has also been found guilty of driving with a high range blood alcohol content as well as other driving offences and failing to obey the direction of a police officer.
He agrees with Mr Bamber that he’s doing well.
“Is it a struggle any more?” asks Mr Bamber.
“No, not all, Your Honour.”
The first couple of months were apparently difficult. Now he’s on monthly court visits and weekly testing: “I’ll stick with that,” he says.
“You seem to be cruising through the whole process. People have different levels of struggle but you seem to be doing as well as anyone.”
The man looks gratified: “Thank you, Your Honour.”
These three have all been Caucasian. The next man is Aboriginal, in his late thirties, early forties perhaps, convicted of drug offences. The upbeat mood continues.
“Your urine tests are going down,” notes Mr Bamber.
“No worries, ey!”
“You haven’t been tempted?”
“Nuh, keeping myself busy, doing a course.”
He’s been on weekly urine tests; he’s rewarded by going to fortnightly testing. If everything’s going well at the next court visit, the court appearances will be spaced out to monthly.
“Thank you, Your Honor, have a good day!”
Is this all too good to be true? As they work through the list, some cases are more difficult.
A young man has been discharged from the DASA rehab program for possession of a rubber mallet, deemed to be a weapon. He says he found it and just wanted to add it to his toolbox and stashed it under his bed. This had Mr Bamber scratching his head. Being thrown out of a program can earn sanctions of up to 14 days’ gaol time, but this case is “a bit unusual”. The young man, whose partner and little boy have accompanied him to court, is told to keep having his tests and turning up to his appointments, while the SMART Court team works out whether he can go back to DASA or what other orders can be put in place.
A young Aboriginal woman comes in. She’s been convicted of possession of methylamphetamines and cannabis. This is her first review. She’s missed one appointment, but kept one; her tests aren’t clean. She admits she’s still smoking and using “a bit of meth”. Her agreement with the court is not to consume, Mr Bamber reminds her: “This is a zero program.” She says she’s been told by a program worker that she can cut down gradually, as it’s “hard to go cold turkey”.
Mr Bamber asks the team whether she’s getting mixed messages. The court clinician says there can be issues for some people in going cold turkey safely.
But sanctions are imposed: she earns one day for the cannabis use, one for the amphetamines, one for missing an appointment. All three are suspended. Mr Bamber notes that she has cut down and that she’s been honest – “That’s good”. He smiles encouragingly and gets a little smile back from this otherwise anxious-looking young woman.
An Aboriginal man comes in. He’s in his late forties, early fifties perhaps, his hair starting to turn grey. He’s been convicted of driving with a high range blood alcohol content and driving while disqualified.
After a “bad start” he’s doing well: “You’ve kept all your appointments, you’ve been enthusiastic, you’re feeling well.”
Does he want to say anything?
“No,” he whispers.
For his earlier breaches he’d earned 10 days’ gaol time, suspended. Now he’s rewarded for total compliance by getting three days back.
An Aboriginal woman appears. She’s been convicted of driving with a medium range blood alcohol content and driving while disqualified. She’s started a job this week, as a kitchenhand. She’s negotiated with her employers to get Thursdays off and work Saturdays, so that she can attend court fortnightly and in the alternate week, attend Holyoake for counselling.
A CAALAS lawyer speaks on her behalf: she’s made a slow start, but the barriers have been identified and strategies put in place.
“I understand it’s difficult …” says Mr Bamber.
“I can stick to it,” the woman says in a firm voice. “I go back to work tomorrow.”
Whether by coincidence or not, the most disappointing cases come last. One woman, also convicted of driving with a medium range blood alcohol content and driving while disqualified, has not turned up for court. Her CAALAS lawyer has not been able to contact her; a field officer is sent to see if she can be found.
Meanwhile, a man has instructed his CAALAS lawyer that he wants to opt out of the program, finalise his matters in court, do his time and ultimately leave gaol without conditions.
The SMART Court is adjourned and the Court of Summary Jurisdiction convened.
The offender has actually completed a three month rehabilitation program at DASA and an Indigenous Family Violence Program but he has breached other orders and also committed new offences – driving with a high range blood alcohol content, driving while disqualified, giving false information to the police (knowing he was in trouble, he gave his name as John Smith) and breaching bail. To all these charges he now pleads guilty.
His life story, as recounted by his lawyer, is bleak: he never knew his father, and was in his mother’s and grandmother’s care until the age of 10. But they were drinkers and he and his brother and sister were ultimately removed from their care, separated and put into foster homes. He did not go past primary school and spent some of his youth living on the streets. All this was in South Australia, where from an early age he was in frequent contact with the criminal justice system.
He moved to the NT six or seven years ago, met a woman from a remote community, had a son with her and also went through “men’s business”. He and his partner have since separated but he has continued to be involved with his son, his “main focus”. He’s been working for his board at Stuart Lodge and formed a new relationship with a woman from a station to the north of Alice Springs. It was in her company and that of her family members that he got drunk at the Wauchope Hotel, consuming about 12 beers. His companions wanted to drive to Alice Springs. They were already drunk but bought a slab to keep them going. One of them, a woman, was at the wheel initially, but he took over, deeming himself more able to drive than she was.
Suspended sentences for other matters are restored and he earns further penalties for his new convictions.
But he has a plan, when he gets out of gaol he wants to take his son to visit his family in South Australia … He is taken away by police and the much grimmer business of the Court of Summary Jurisdiction continues.
Only the longer term will tell to what extent the SMART Court can reduce re-offending and increase rehabilitation in the NT. Once they emerge from the structured program and have to leave behind the support of the team, some people will no doubt find it harder to keep on the straight and narrow. But it seems a hopeful start has been made.
Violent offending excluded from SMART Court
Chief Magistrate Hilary Hannam is a passionate advocate for problem-solving courts, such as the SMART Court, believing that “if properly resourced and available to the widest range of offenders [they] will be an effective tool in dealing with much of the criminal conduct in the Northern Territory”.
She regrets that NT legislators excluded violent crime from the offences eligible to be dealt with by the SMART Court.
Substance misuse does not cause crime but there’s a correlation between the two and the relationship appears to be “particularly strong for violent crime”.
“There is also a great deal of evidence that suggests that alcohol plays a major role in much of the offending by Indigenous people,” said Ms Hannam during a speech she made earlier this year for Drug Action Week.
Alcohol-related offending and in particular, alcohol-related violence appear to be the community’s greatest concern in the NT, said Ms Hannam, and it’s “unfortunate” that the model is not available to violent offenders.
“This is not to say that the court is wishing to allow all or any seriously violent offenders into the SMART Court, but would have preferred to have retained the discretion to allow some offenders who otherwise fit the criteria for the program and who have committed violent offences to be able to be admitted in some cases.
“This is particularly the case with Aboriginal offenders whose alcohol misuse is connected to their offending.
“I am also very concerned that many young offenders who, due to their impulsivity, also often commit violent offences and potentially could gain great benefits from a program such as this, but will be excluded.”
A problem-solving court is not an NT invention. They exist in USA and elsewhere in Australia and have been extensively evaluated.
Ms Hannam reported on the evaluation of the NSW Drug Court by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research:
“In its most recent research, published in September 2008 … results confirmed earlier research in showing that, controlling for other factors, participants in the drug court were less likely to be reconvicted than offenders given conventional sanctions.
“In particular, the drug court participants were 17% less likely to be reconvicted for any offence, 30% less likely to be reconvicted for a violent offence and 38% less likely to be reconvicted for a drug offence at any point during the follow-up period.”
She also mentioned some other positive outcomes from drug courts in Australia and overseas, including:
• improvements in participants’ health and wellbeing;
• monetary savings in prosecution, law enforcement, prison and court costs; and,
• social benefits such as the long-term reduction in drug use, increases in employment, education and the reunification of families.
A breakthrough in dealing with alcohol-related offending?