By KIERAN FINNANE
It was an opportunity to remake her life and she took it: she turned from regular heavy drinking – of up to 30 cans of full strength beer in a sitting and this since 1987 – to being sober, taking on full-time employment, progressing in her job, looking after family, aspiring to rent her own flat.
Erica Lowah was one of three to graduate from the SMART Court program last Thursday. The three are the first in Alice Springs to complete the program since its introduction in July last year.
SMART stands for “Substance Misuse Assessment and Referral for Treatment”. Sentencing of offenders with serious alcohol and/or drug problems is deferred while they undertake programs as ordered by the court. The programs are tailored to individual needs but the bottom line is total abstinence.
Ms Lowah had been charged with high range drink driving and driving while disqualified and these were not her first drink driving offences. By entering the SMART Court program, she was given a chance to avoid gaol time and to get her life back on track.
A cake was brought into the court to celebrate the achievements of the graduates. Everyone was beaming. The usual formalities, already not great in this court, dropped away. I was even allowed to get out my pocket camera and take a snap, with the quietly proud Ms Lowah agreeing to have her photo published.
Magistrate David Bamber joked with graduate Benjamin Smith that his was the first SMART Court romance: while on the program he entered and has remained in a relationship with a young woman who is also a program participant.
Mr Bamber reflected briefly on his experience of this very different court. The legislation was introduced quickly and he’d had little idea of what his role would involve. Visiting a similar court in New South Wales, he learnt that their main ‘problem’ was that people wanted to keep coming back, to let the court know how well they were doing. One NSW graduate had even brought his one-day-old baby to show the court’s team.
The stories reveal the importance of personal relationships in this court (in contrast to other courts where the personal is suppressed). The relationships obviously have their boundaries but there is an observable genuine warmth between the court’s team and the participants, especially those – not surprisingly – who respond well to the chance they’ve been given.
Lawyer for Ms Lowah, Libby Penman, told the court that her client should be “congratulated” for her “exemplary progress” through the program. She had not returned a single negative breath test for the duration. Nor had there been any negative reports about her, for things like not keeping appointments, not complying with treatment orders.
From day one she’d been highly motivated and made big lifestyle changes. She’d undertaken counselling, from which she’d “learnt a lot” and she’d obtained a full-time job with Mission Australia, not only maintaining it but achieving promotion to become a co-manager of their tenancy support program. This involves “life skills mentoring” and Ms Lowah has been able to share her own experiences with others, to show that it is possible to rebuild a life away from drinking. In this regard, she has also become a significant role model for younger members of her own family, said Ms Penman.
She has been living with family members including her mother and elderly grandfather who is suffering from dementia and whom she helps care for. With a regular income she hopes to soon be able to rent her own home.
To deal with her criminal offences, Ms Penman submitted that a good behaviour bond for a short period would be appropriate given that she had already fully complied with an intensive court order (this would be additional to a five year mandatory disqualification from holding a driver’s licence).
Magistrate Bamber did not agree with the proposed short period. Ordinarily for these offences and given her prior convictions, he would have felt obliged, in line with Supreme Court directions, to impose gaol time. However, given that the program is rewards-based and that Ms Lowah had done “everything a person could”, he imposed a conviction and good behaviour bond for two years.
While the majority of referrals to the SMART Court appear to be for alcohol-related driving offences (violent offending is excluded), for Mr Smith and the third graduate, who preferred to remain anonymous, cannabis was the substance at issue.
Mr Smith had committed property offences, but had made early full admissions, returned the stolen property and was ashamed and remorseful.
His early months on the program were difficult but he then made significant improvements and had maintained total abstinence from mid-December last year. He had gone from being an “anti-social young adult to a productive grown-up”, said his lawyer, Clement Ng. He had recently left a full-time job but is expecting to start a new job shortly. Mr Ng suggested that his offending be dealt with by way of fine or a fully suspended sentence.
Magistrate Bamber said Mr Smith had presented with a serious addiction problem but had been an “enthusiastic participant” in the program, always turning up “with a smile on his face” and “even when things weren’t 100%, he was always honest”. In his view Mr Smith’s full and successful completion of the program amounted to “exceptional circumstances” allowing Mr Bamber the discretion not to impose a sentence or community work order. Instead, he imposed a conviction and a good behaviour bond for 12 months.
“Many may see this as very lenient,” said Mr Bamber, but “the success and value of the program” lies not in people only completing it, but in them being able to “get on with their lives” afterwards.
The third graduate had pleaded guilty to possessing cannabis in a trafficable quantity and to growing it (four plants). Mr Bamber accepted the offender’s story that the amount resulted from the plants growing unexpectedly well and that it was for his own use. Further, the offender had been an “enthusiastic, motivated participant” in the program which he had completed “without blemish”. In light of this, he imposed a conviction and good behaviour bond for 12 months.
Two further participants on the court list last Thursday look set to graduate in the near future, their good progress clearly a matter of pride and pleasure for themselves and their case-workers.
A woman in her middle years seemed also to be on the up and up. Having been in transitional housing after rehab, she is now ready to move into an “independent living facility”. She has a full-time job at Hetti Perkins Aged Care and the possibility of doing a training course.
“Are you missing the grog?” asked Mr Bamber.
“No,” she smiled.
“You’re going along nicely … well done.” He’d see her again in a month.
Another older woman was also doing well and earned back a day out of two days’ gaol time she had received for an earlier breach. Mr Bamber warned her not to be tempted to drink when she attends a funeral out bush, which he gave permission for.
Others on the list were experiencing a range of difficulties, including staying off the grog. For one man it had been because of “issues” at the place where he was living. He’d gone back to live with the mother of his two children. Despite their separation she had accepted this and was there in court to support him. He was commended by Mr Bamber for recognising his problems and taking action to deal with them.
Another man said he’d run into a “bit of bad company” while on four days off, the first break he’d had for while. His breaches had involved both cannabis and alcohol. Mr Bamber wanted him to think about intensive rehab: “Your work is getting in the way of you getting the help you need.” The man said he couldn’t afford to stop working at the moment. Mr Bamber imposed a sanction of three days’ gaol. Serving the time was suspended and it will be possible for the man to earn the days back if he can get on the straight and narrow.
A man who had been in rehab but had moved into transitional housing had gone back on the grog. Now he wants to return to rehab for “a few more months”, according to his lawyer. Mr Bamber is waiting to receive a psychiatrist’s report before imposing sanctions for the breach.
An older man applying to be assessed for the program had his application challenged by the police prosecutor, who contended that the man did not have a “serious” substance misuse problem, an eligibility requirement under the legislation. He suggested that five drink driving matters in 13 years for a man of his age did not amount to a serious problem. The court sees many far more serious alcohol problems, he said.
The man’s lawyer, Mr Ng, outlined his client’s history with alcohol: his father was a serious alcoholic and his client began drinking in his company at the age of 14. Over the years the habit had built up to a peak in 2009 when he was drinking 18 beers a day. Until his recent offending he’d been drinking 14 beers a day but had not had a drink since his last court appearance. He has never done any rehab.
Mr Bamber said that anyone drinking at that level had a serious problem: not only was it injurious to health but it had caused the man to come to police notice. He suggested that “such horrific drinking habits” as are seen in the Northern Territory distort our views of what is “normal”. He adjourned the matter to allow for clinicial assessment.
Lawyer Ms Penman raised the possibility with the court of accepting a client who lives between the communities of Ali Curung and Ti Tree. Tennant Creek would be the best place for him to undertake treatment. They do have a rehab facility but Mr Bamber said monitoring and clinicial testing would be an issue.
“Tennant Creek could do with a whole program itself,” he said, deferring a decision.
See earlier report, Court of good hope.
Pictured from top: Erica Lowah receives her SMART court graduation certificate from Magistrate David Bamber. • The SMART Court team, left to right: Court clinicians Elayne Cheong and Megan McLoskey, Magistrate David Bamber, CAALAS lawyer Lauren Scholz, Community Corrections Officer Alysha Kretschmann, NTLAC lawyer Clement Ng, and CAALAS lawyer Libby Penman.
By KIERAN FINNANE