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Specialist courts: Drug Court continues to innovate

Specialist courts: Drug Court continues to innovate

By Carolyn Ford

Courts COVID-19 Drugs 


The principles of therapeutic jurisprudence underpin the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Order program

Turning 20 in 2022, the Drug Court is the oldest of Victoria’s specialist courts, yet it continues to innovate in ways large and small.

The ‘Cameron COVID Cooking Challenge’ is one such innovation – a spinoff of life under lockdown, when Supervising Magistrate Suzanne Cameron got creative with technology solutions to help isolated Drug and Alcohol Treatment Order (DATO) participants stay connected, but which will likely stay post-pandemic.

“I ask participants to cook a meal depending on their needs,” says Magistrate Cameron. “I have a participant preparing for unsupervised access with his two-year-old child who he sees every two weeks for an hour. I’ve asked him to prepare a suitable, healthy meal for her. He needs to take photos of the ingredients, the preparation and the finished meal. Of course, people send selfies, too. That activity will continue, and it’s since been adopted at Dandenong Drug Court.”

Another COVID-19 innovation that will continue is meditation sessions via Zoom, popular with DATO participants and team members. “We have people with anxiety so teaching meditation and breathing techniques in the online classes is really helpful for those in recovery,” says Magistrate Cameron.

The newest innovation, 18 months in development to ensure best practice and now being rolled out, is lived-experience peer mentors on staff at the Court. 

“We are really thrilled and proud of the extraordinary lived experience peer mentoring program that we have just launched,” says Magistrate Cameron.

“There has been a huge amount of work that has gone into it, including training for those going in to the roles but also team members. We’ve established fit, boundaries, risks, structure and supervision. 

“Our first referrals are happening. We have three mentors embedded in our multidisciplinary team, including one who is a graduate of the Melbourne Drug Court program. It’s an amazing experience for them, to cross over from participant to team member. 

“All have experience of alcohol and substance abuse.

“This is paid employment for them, it’s incredibly exciting. A lot of graduates are interested in giving back, and go on to work in the sector.”

The new mentoring program is at the Melbourne Drug Court where participants are capped at 170, and at Dandenong, where participants are capped at 70.

“You can always do more,” says Magistrate Cameron. “COVID-19 has thrown us a lot of other things to think about and slowed down the innovation for now. It’s been difficult and exhausting. For our vulnerable cohort it was tricky, some had no smart phone, no wifi, but they were resilient and learned technical skills. We went digital, and while the preference is for face to face, some hearings, therapeutic activities and appointments may continue online.

“We are always looking at what more we can do and how we can do it better, thinking of ways to innovate and deliver our services differently. We are constantly reviewing policies and programs to update them.

“We are certainly delivering our therapeutic responses in a different way now. And keeping up with emerging trends and developments in the drug and alcohol sector including what drugs are prevalent is really important. We have to be on our toes and adjust. Methylamphetamine has changed the landscape significantly since the Drug Court started in Dandenong when heroin was the bigger issue.”

Aside from ongoing innovation within, the Drug Court, a division of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, is expanding to Ballarat and Shepparton. Each of the new regional drug courts, which will be operational this financial year, will have capacity for 35 participants. 

The Court’s expansion is a measure of its success, working as it does to improve community safety and the health of individuals with an alternative sentencing option – a DATO – focusing on rehabilitating offenders with a drug and/or alcohol dependency. Eligible participants work with a multidisciplinary team and a magistrate over two years. The principles of therapeutic jurisprudence underpin the program.

Research shows participants who complete the program reoffend less frequently and commit lower-level crimes and drug use is reduced. There are also improvements in health of participants across medical, psychiatric and alcohol and drugs health risk areas, and in wellbeing and community connectedness through improving relationships, housing stability and life skills. 

“Addiction ruled my life. It strips you of your dignity and integrity. Drug Court has helped me rebuild my life, who I am. I’ve been clean since July 2021. I’ve got secure housing, I see my children. Life is very different now. Drug Court is not a get out of jail free card. It’s not roses. I’ve fallen on my face. At the end of the day, what I’ve got from the Drug Court is a sense of self.” 
– Drug Court participant 

There are three phases to a DATO – stabilisation, consolidation and reintegration. Progress, or otherwise, is met with rewards or sanctions. “Rewards are generally very simple acknowledgments such as words of praise, a round of applause, relaxation of conditions such as a curfew, or a turn at our lucky dip fishbowl where they might select a water bottle or tickets to the footy. The toasted sandwich press and the frozen dessert makers are very popular. I’ve had some amazing photos of slushy pink desserts sent to me. I don’t know another piece of legislation that allows a judicial officer to offer incentives. It’s unique and quite fabulous and very powerful. It took me a while to get used to. When I started I wondered about inviting these tough guys up to choose a sticky note saying you’ve won a coffee mug. But the power of it is enormous, it’s about recognition in front of the whole group. They’re proud, they stand in front of the Court and their peers and blush, it’s delightful.

“We have participants who have been in state care from a very young age with terrible disadvantage, and others who are institutionalised and have no life skills. Some can’t work an ATM, never had a bank card, don’t know about myki. They are rightfully really proud of small achievements.”

When sanctions are required for non-compliance, there is an initial therapeutic response – participants are asked to write a reflection, do the cooking challenge, attend online mediation – a whole range of activities to promote pro-social behaviour, recovery and health. Beyond that, community work days and imprisonment days are meted out. Worst case scenario is cancellation of a DATO. 

“Everybody has a different journey. It’s often two steps forward, one step back. Participants who don’t succeed sometimes reapply. Sometimes it’s not the right time for them. Recovery is not a straight line and this order recognises that.”

Magistrate Cameron urges legal practitioners to, more often and early in the process, ask magistrates to consider referring offenders to the Drug Court for a DATO. 

“It’s a fantastic opportunity and often overlooked by practitioners for those really difficult cases. We deal with people with the highest risk of reoffending, highest needs, significant trauma histories, all manner of backgrounds. These are the end of the road cases, the people who have exhausted all options, who are not going to be assessed as suitable for parole or corrections orders. Subject to the type of offending and eligibility (no sexual or serious bodily harm offences are considered), we are still prepared to consider them for a DATO.

“We know DATOs are more effective in terms of long-term outcomes when they are imposed closest to the crisis event, ie, arrest and remand. Sometimes a person will join having been in custody for nine months, but coming to us after a month or two is much more effective in terms of motivation and rehabilitation. It’s a great option to have on your radar early.

“Therapeutic jurisprudence is critical. The administration of criminal justice deals with humans and if we can bring a human approach and focus on solutions we will have better long-term outcomes legally, economically and on a human level. 

“If we take the time to look at the problems that bring people before our courts and seek to address them, we can help them deal with underlying issues so they don’t need to come back. To ignore those issues is to perpetuate the cycle.”

Magistrate Cameron describes her current role as her career highlight. Admitted in 1991, she practised as a criminal lawyer, including in her own practice, focusing on white collar and drug related crime, until 2006 when, joining Foley’s, she became the first female solicitor to work as a barrister’s clerk. She was appointed a magistrate in 2009, becoming supervising magistrate of the Drug Court in 2020.

“I see a lot of misery, it’s the lot of the criminal lawyer. Whatever part of the system you work in you need to look after yourself, enjoy family, friends, interests. I secretly fancy myself as a bit of a travel photographer.

“In this role I hear a lot of sadness but I am involved in a program that deals in hope. I get real satisfaction from supporting others who for various reasons have had complicated lives. It’s a privilege to do what I do.” ■


MCV Specialist Courts & Programs CPD Series: Drug Court – October 18. Check website for details.

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