Although the NT Government is putting the emphasis on “tough” sanctions for breaches, its new parole program is as much about supporting prisoners released on parole to stay out of gaol. It is based on a program already being trialled for offenders on probation, which after a year is showing “very promising” results. KIERAN FINNANE reports.
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. There is also 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 and thinking about whether there are lessons here for programs in other fields and a case for this one to be expanded.
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 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.