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. KIERAN FINNANE reports.
Pictured: Erica Lowah receives her SMART court graduation certificate from Magistrate David Bamber.
A 28-year-old man was arrested yesterday on drug and firearm offences following a search at Charles Creek Camp.
Detective Acting Superintendent Travis Wurst (pictured) says: “This further confirms there is an inextricable link in Alice Springs between cannabis supply and the disposal of stolen property.
“Since the commencement of the Operation on December 1, Operation Thresher officers have already arrested 17 people culminating in the submission of 24 arrest files, predominantly for property offences." (Police media release.)
A breakthrough in dealing with alcohol-related offending?
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."
This is the SMART Court, introduced in the Northern Territory this year. 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 but also sanctions: non-compliance with orders can earn gaol time. Photo (from our archive): Many of the people appearing before the SMART Court have been convicted of medium and high-range drink-driving and other driving offences. KIERAN FINNANE reports.
New statistics released by Treasury this week have highlighted the collapse of the construction sector in the Northern Territory, says Shadow Treasurer John Elferink. “Year-on-year, overall construction in 2011 fell by 8.9% in the Territory, the worst results in the country. “Worse still, comparing June quarters, residential building has dropped by almost one third in the last year, with new housing construction down 41.1%, which means the door has slammed shut in the last quarter," says Mr Elferink. “On an annual basis, construction spending is now at its lowest level since the end of 2005. “Programs like the Government’s BuildBonus scheme has delivered a miniscule $10m in housing construction, less than 10% of the anticipated $150m it is meant to support. “In terms of houses built, that’s less than 20 homes out of a potential 325." Meanwhile Shadow Alcohol Policy Minister Peter Styles says while there are 1576 people on the Banned Drinker Register, already 104 of those have breached their third Banning Alcohol and Treatment notice. Not one has been made to undertake alcohol rehabilitation. "This is one of the inherent flaws in the Government’s grog plan," says Mr Styles. "Problem drinkers can continue to access alcohol, but they don’t have to undertake treatment for their addiction. “The Country Liberals policy mandates alcohol rehabilitation and leaves ordinary Territorians to buy alcohol without producing photo ID.” Mr Styles said the grog bans have resulted in increased humbugging and alcoholics seeking out other drugs, such as cannabis.
Suicide is a new and growing problem for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. The only detailed published study, looking at data from 1981 to 2002, shows that there was only one suicide by an Indigenous man in the NT in 1981, in contrast to seven that year by non-Indigenous men. In the 22 year period the first suicide by an Indigenous woman was not until 1991, while between one and three by non-Indigenous women had been recorded in every year since 1984 and four were recorded that year.
The study by Mary-Anne Measey, Shu Qin Li and Robert Parker was published in 2005 by the NT Department of Health and Community Services. It reports that the rate of suicide amongst men in the NT, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, increased during the 1990s and early 2000s, while the Australian rate remained stable. KIERAN FINNANE reports. Drawing by Sue McLeod for Suicide Stories: Feeling unloved and surrounded by grog abuse and violence.