COMMENT by KIERAN FINNANE
There has been a lot of debate recently about ‘carrots’ versus ‘sticks’ policy approaches in fields where governments are attempting to change individuals’ behaviour. The principle of open court offers an unusual opportunity for direct observation of a carrots and sticks program in action, or at least of one facet of it, in the case of the SMART Court.
It is early days still for this program, but it seems its well-balanced combination of rewards and sanctions is giving many of its participants a genuine “hand up”. With their addictions heading them towards rock bottom, they’re given a chance – a six-month window to turn their lives around. What’s required – total abstinence and a range of other disciplined efforts – is not easy, but they’re effectively supported according to their individual needs.
It’s understood that they may fall off the wagon and get into other kinds of trouble, but there will nevertheless be consequences, measured in units of gaol time additional to the ultimate sentence for the crime they have committed.
But there’s no inexorable back-sliding: with renewed focus they can ‘earn’ these back as well as other rewards, including less frequent clinical testing for substance use and less frequent visits to court.
Then there are the rewards that are not easy to measure: words of encouragement, affirmation, congratulation, smiles, friendly jokes. You would have to see how touchingly pleased are the recipients – grown men and women whose faces often reflect the hard roads they’ve travelled – to gauge the worth of this.
There is a lot of cynicism in the community about so-called “do-gooder” programs. Here is one that gives cause for optimism and it’s worth considering its features:
• it is conducted within a mainstream context – the courts and corrections;
• it is focussed on problematic behaviour, not on a particular population;
• it sets clear bottom-line goals and has high expectations that they will be achieved;
• the timeframe for participation and graduation is tight;
• participation is supported by a clear system of rewards and sanctions;
• there is very close monitoring and reporting;
• individual needs are catered for, and treatments and supports adjusted as they go along;
• it draws on resources wherever they may be found – professionals in a whole range of government and non-government agencies, as well as workplaces, partners, family members;
• the simple power of human relationships is given explicit value.
Are there lessons here for programs in other fields?
And should this program be expanded to include a wider range of offences and other Territory communities, giving more people a chance to stay out of our over-crowded (and very expensive) gaols?
See separate report about Alice Springs’ first SMART Court graduation.
COMMENT by KIERAN FINNANE