Despite Unclear Future, the Drug Court Pushes On

In Dublin’s District Court, just off Chancery Street, the courtroom window is open and lets in the ding-ding sound of the Luas as it takes off from the Four Courts stop. Against a backdrop of bright yellow walls, everyone is quite laid back.

Names are scraped into the wooden benches and people can be seen texting every so often without fear of being caught in contempt of court. The judge chats quite casually to the person at the stand and pauses when the rest of room’s chit-chat has become too loud. “Silence in court.”

These observations – and many more – give the impression of a schoolroom rather than a courtroom.

The Drug Treatment Court (DTC), which provides an alternative to prison for drug addicts who are before the District Court on minor criminal charges – shoplifting or public-order offences, for example – is hoping to expand its jurisdiction outside of Dublin and be made available to people all over the country.

However, the DTC is often seen as a failure because of the low number of participants who complete, or graduate from, its programme. Since its beginning in 2001, only 50 participants have fully completed it, while five have made it to the silver phase – which means they are clean of all drugs except cannabis; 255 others have been discharged from the programme.

Measuring Success

The DTC was trialled in 2001 and became a permanent part of Dublin’s justice system in 2006. Through counselling, education, regular screening and a rewards system, the programme attempts to rehabilitate drug users who have been charged with non-violent crimes, in three phases.

The first phase – bronze – aims to have participants become stable and stop using their main drug, which is usually heroin. For the participant to graduate from the silver phase, the judge will need to see progression and screens clean of every type of drug except cannabis.

And finally, the gold phase sees participants become self-reliant and free of all drugs. The main motivation for this is that if you complete the gold phase, any charges against you will be struck out.

The court operates a points-based reward system to maintain some level of control, says the court’s coordinator, Hilda McDermott. For example, it’s +6 points for two clean screens in a row during the first phase, and -2 for a “dirty” screen or -4 for a refusal.

When a participant reaches +70 points, they receive a €30 voucher for the Jervis Street Shopping Centre, or if they reach -70 points, they have to spend a week in custody.

McDermott believes graduation figures don’t fully show the success of the programme. Last year, only one person graduated fully, she says, but there was still a lot of progression because so many people moved from the bronze phase to the silver phase.

“In that year, they would have gained a lot of education qualifications. Some people who maybe didn’t have access to their children in the past are now stable enough to be gaining access,” she explains.

The court’s judge, Ann Ryan, isn’t fazed by the low levels of completion either. She believes the most important thing is for participants to get their dignity and self-respect back.

“Graduating, it’s the icing on the cake, but that’s not the point,” she says. “What they get on the way is colossal.”

Expansion

The DTC was originally for drug users from Dublin 1, Dublin 3 and Dublin 7. Four years ago, it expanded to encompass all of the north side, and then it expanded to the south side. Now, staff hope to see its jurisdiction expand countrywide.

However, the Department of Justice has promised to trial community courts in Dublin, and it’s unclear what effect this might have on the future of the DTC: whether the community courts would be separate from the drug court, or if they would absorb or replace it somehow.

The most recent report on the DTC, from 2012-13, is still being reviewed by the Department of Justice. The department rejected a Freedom of Information request from Dublin Inquirer to see it, as well as an appeal of that rejection, on the grounds that it is part of ongoing policy deliberations.

But there were some figures available. Last year, the cost of running the DTC for the courts, the Gardaí and the probation services was €123,250. The cost to the City of Dublin Education and Training Board was €389,809 and the HSE spent €65,000.

In December 2014, there were 40 participants in the DTC;  tot up the figures and you find that the total annual cost for each participant for health, education and court services was €14,451.

This would appear to be good value, given that the average cost of hosting someone in prison in 2014 was €68,959, according to the Irish Penal Reform Trust. (Although, some will be discharged from the programme into prison.)

The DTC has tried to minimise costs by having only one court sitting each week and sharing staff with other areas of the court system. Only the nurse, the probation officer and the education coordinator are full-time with the DTC.

The staff at the DTC appear unfazed by the state of limbo in which the court is now. Rather than waiting, wondering if and when the ax will fall, they are pushing to expand the drug court.

“My colleagues all wish they had a drug court,” says Judge Ryan. She hopes drug users outside of Dublin will be able to avail of the court’s benefits by liaising with the DTC.

Ideally, participants outside of Dublin would be able to access supports – counselling, probation officers, education and regular screenings – where they are living, and then commute to the court in Dublin for Wednesday-afternoon sittings.

“Why shouldn’t people around the country be able to access the drug court if people in Dublin can?” asks DTC education coordinator Fiona Carolan.

This is something that at least one person is already doing.

A Fresh Start

Last Wednesday, spirits were high as the court celebrated its first “accelerated” graduation. Dylan, who lives in Cork, took only six months to complete the DTC programme.

Though he had already been off drugs for just over a year before coming to the drug court, he did it to prevent himself from relapsing and to get his charges struck out. “I knew prison would send me backwards and decided to give myself a chance,” he says.

Having used drugs since the age of ten, he has had a few sober stints along the way –but now, he says, he has had enough of drugs and being homeless. “They took everything from me,” he says.

He set up treatment in Cork: doctors for screening, Narcotics Anonymous for counselling and a college of further education for training. He only had to travel to Dublin to attend the drug court once a month.

His graduation was well attended by other participants of the drug court – probably because they would have lost ten points if they hadn’t attended – as well as staff and District Court President Rosemary Horgan.

Bualadh bos!” someone yells. Participants clap and cheer their support as his charges are officially struck out.

Speaking from the stand, Dylan has some encouraging words for everyone: “I thought that was my life and it wouldn’t change, but you can get recovery,” he says.

One of the other participants stands up in the middle of the courtroom and announces, “You’re an inspiration to everyone here . . . keep going forward.”

Though they have been delivered in unconventional fashion, Judge Ryan welcomes these impromptu words of kindness, before instructing everyone to go to the prefab across the way for some tea and cake.

Dylan’s goal now is to get a job as a gym instructor when he finishes his Level 6 FETAC course in March.

An Alternative to Prison

Carolan, the education coordinator, agrees that people often have a negative impression of the DTC.

“People don’t know about it, or when they do it seems to be a negative link. They say, ‘Oh, I thought that was closing’ or ‘I thought there weren’t enough graduates from that,’” she says.

Carolan has been involved with the programme from the beginning. Having previously worked in a women’s prison for three years and then in Wheatfield Prison for eleven, she was intrigued by the drug court offering an alternative to prison.

While teaching in prison, she found that 60 to 70 percent of her students were addicting to something, but she saw the change that education brought them.

“I thought, ‘Here’s an alternative to the prison programme where that change could happen without the person having to be sent to prison and marginalised and made to feel more isolated in society,’” she explains.

Though she says that prison offers support structures, consistency and three meals a day, the DTC provides treatment, supervision and support.

“The court itself is kind of like a therapeutic court. It’s not punitive. It’s not punishing the person, really. It’s supporting the person,” she says.

The DTC can prove more difficult because participants remain the same environments with the problems and stresses that caused their problems in the first place, Carolan admits. But still she believes it’s the better option.

“Okay, [prison] has a safe structure and it takes them away from access to drugs – though they have their own ways of getting it in anyway – but it’s not really addressing what the issues are that have gotten them into addiction in the first place,” she says.

Back to School

As Carolan tells it, the DTC differs from other programmes, because the team provides participants with consistency similar to that of a family. Many haven’t had that before.

When she suggested including education at the bronze phase of treatment, there were many raised eyebrows, she said. But it has worked. It’s a big part of what provides structure and consistency to stabilise new participants.

Participants attend school – as they say in court – weekdays from 10am until around 2pm or 3pm at the City of Dublin Education and Training Board on Parnell Square. For the most part, they complete FETAC level 3 or 4 courses; the majority of participants would have left school at 13 or 14, she says. Forty-four percent have low literacy levels and need support from tutors.

Staff build up their confidence by finding subjects they like and building relationships with them. Keeping an appointment diary, making phone calls, presenting PowerPoint talks: developing these small skills can have a considerable knock-on effect, says Carolan.

When people have a voice and a routine, they being to see themselves in a different way, she believes.

Between 2004 and 2010, 148 FETAC certificates were awarded to participants, who have gone on to courses including health and fitness, animal grooming and applied science.

Would an increase in numbers in the DTC strain education resources? No, says Carolan. She thinks the learning centre could take twice as many students without a problem.

Chaotic Lives

The participants lead hectic lives, according to Carolan: one girl showed up unfit for court with a black eye and a bag of possessions after moving into a hostel.

All the participants have experienced trauma in their youth, says Carolan. This is true in the case of one man who is in the bronze phase.

He took on the role as man of the house at eight, he says. His younger sister was starved of oxygen at birth and his father got depressed, taking to bed a lot. When drink and drugs came along, the man “thought it was a godsend”.

“It took me away from reality and I became addicted to getting away from reality,” he says. He used numerous drugs, including heroin.

He’s been through cycles of getting clean and relapsing. In college, mental-health problems drove him back to drugs, and he dropped out.

He feels he is treated like an adult and with respect in the DTC. “There’s not so much of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ feeling about it,” he says. “It’s a big team that everyone is part of.”

He enjoys his classes and says it’s all about building your self-esteem back up. He’s feeling confident about his future, hoping to be a lecturer or a musician some day. It’s the motivation to get his charges struck out, he says, that drives him.

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Author:

Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

Reader responses

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T
at 11 August 2015 at 12:22

Hey, was wondering if you could clarify, is there a cannabis exemption in the gold phase?

Louisa McGrath
at 11 August 2015 at 14:36

@T: To graduate at gold level you have to stop taking everything including cannabis, but you can graduate at silver level while still smoking cannabis. If you graduate at silver level, charges aren’t struck out immediately like they are at gold level, but my understanding is that if you don’t commit any crimes over the next year, then the charges can be struck out. It is up the judge at the end of the day, but that seems to be the general rule.

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