Drug treatment court: A failed experiment imported from the US?
Critics of the system point to low graduation rates, although others cite hidden benefits
Dublin Drug Treatment Court on Green Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
When the Dublin Drug Treatment Court was established in 2001, it was hailed as having the perfect balance – a programme that would match the government’s tough-on-crime rhetoric while simultaneously focusing on rehabilitating offenders.
“By introducing a drugs court programme, we will use the justice system in an imaginative way to rehabilitate addicts charged with non-violent offences and reduce the prison revolving door for drug addicts,” Bertie Ahern had said in Fianna Fáil’s 1997 election manifesto before his party entered government for more than a decade.
The new court, along with an expanded methadone treatment programme, was designed to balance out other, more severe criminal justice policies, such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing, which were introduced following the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin by gangland criminals.
However, 18 years on, most of that goodwill has evaporated, with many arguing the court should be abolished and replaced with health-focussed solutions to the problem of drug crime.
One of its fiercest critics is John Collins, executive director of the International Drug Policy Unit at the London School of Economics.
Research by Collins, which draws on interviews with judges, drug workers and civil servants, suggests a deeply flawed process that has resulted in few successes and is only retained because politicians “think it sounds good”.
The court requires vulnerable defendants to “semi-voluntarily” surrender their right to legal representation and due process.
Collins and his researcher colleagues have looked at drug treatment courts around the world. The conclusions of Collins’s book, Rethinking Drug Courts: International Experiences of a US Policy Export, are clear – drug courts are mostly a waste of time and resources.
In 2014 the cost of running the court was €123,250, or €14,451 for each of the 40 participants that year
On paper the drug court makes sense. The candidates are addicts who have admitted to committing a non-violent crime connected to their drug abuse. Instead of jailing them, a judge can instead send them to the drug court, which will put them on an 18-month programme requiring them to get clean and stop offending.
There are different levels of success, ranging from bronze to gold. Those graduating the gold level must be totally free of drugs. As a reward the charges against them are struck out. Those who graduate silver need to give up everything except cannabis. Their charges remain but a recommendation is sent to the sentencing judge to impose a non-custodial sentence.
One of the main problems with the court is that very few drug addicts are deemed suitable for it, and of them only a tiny number complete it successfully.
Between 2010 and 2017, 688 people were admitted to the court. This was significantly up on the court’s first decade of operation but still represented a small minority of the thousands of people prosecuted for drug-related crime in any one year.
Of that 688 only 37, about 5 per cent, completed the gold course and had their charges struck out.
In 2014 the cost of running the court, including costs incurred by the Garda and Probation service, was €123,250, or €14,451 for each of the 40 participants that year.
Most programmes with such a low success rate would have been abolished years ago but the drug court has limped on “because it sounds good”, Collins believes.
“It sounds like something people want to hear in its approach to drugs. It maintains the tough-on-crime facade while giving the sense that it’s all about people recovering and becoming productive citizens again.”
He believes its problems can be traced back to the importation of the drug court model from the US, a country that has a vastly different history in dealing with drug crime.
The drug court emerged organically there, as a way of addressing the country’s staggering incarceration rate. But Ireland never had that problem, meaning the introduction of the model here “never really made much sense”, Collins said.
One consultant psychiatrist told researcher Shane Butler in 2013 that they viewed the court’s introduction as politically driven. Other civil servants wondered why it was necessary when the District Court could essentially fulfil the same functions. There were a lot of “frustrated justices” who would have preferred a better-resourced Probation Service rather than “a bloody court”, one psychiatrist said.
Another said the drug court had been transplanted into the Irish justice system “and that transplant was rejected”.
Even the few success stories resulting from the court should be treated with caution, Collins argues.
Evidence from the US shows those who do graduate from such programmes tend to be from wealthier, more stable backgrounds, suggesting those at the bottom are being left behind.
“I’ve always had a mental reservation about whether this model will work with people who have very poor resources in terms of housing, a stake in society or whatever,” one Irish judge told Butler.
One of the most concerning criticisms of the drug treatment court is that it denies defendants due process. Participants are not usually legally represented when appearing before the court and can have their bail revoked for minor matters, Collins says.
An evaluation of the programme after one year found that one third of participants had their bail revoked for periods ranging from two to 40 days during their time on the programme.
The first judge to preside over the court, Judge Gerard Haughton, recalled in 2009: “I was quite direct in informing the lawyers that I did not see any particular role for them in appearing on a regular basis in the court and that on occasions defendants’ bail may be revoked for a short period.”
He went on to observe such bail revocation “could almost certainly be successfully challenged in the High Court”.
There has never been any such challenge. Defendants before the court are unlikely to speak up about the issues given that their only alternative is to go back to the District Court, where they may face a much tougher sentence.
“We know from our history that when you give the State this level of control over someone’s personal life, the risk of abuse is extremely high. You have to have protections in-built,” Collins says.
'We’ve looked at drugs courts worldwide and found them to be extremely unconvincing'
Today drug addicts continue to gather in the improbable mahogany surrounds of the historic Green Street Court, where they are admonished or praised by a judge depending on their progress. Most will wash out of the programme before it ends; a tiny minority will graduate drug-free.
The first report on the drug court, completed a year after it began work, noted its low participation rate and poor cost-effectiveness but said these issues could be overcome.
A 2005 report found many of the same problems, yet confusingly recommended it become a permanent programme instead of a pilot project. Fine Gael, then in opposition, called for drug courts to be rolled out nationally.
Shortly afterwards a decision was made to extend the work of the court to the whole of Dublin, despite it only graduating 11 people in its first five years. Behind the scenes, health and justice workers expressed frustration, with one calling the expansion decision “an own goal”.
In 2009, as the recession hit, the court’s future looked bleak. The Comptroller and Auditor General expressed reservations about its cost-effectiveness, while the then secretary general of the Department of Justice, Seán Aylward, went even further, calling the court “a well-intentioned experiment which should now be ended”.
But the idea still enjoyed political popularity and the court was given a reprieve. Civil servants continued to view it as “purely of symbolic value”, Collins writes. One described it as “political window-dressing that suggests you’re doing something radical ... but it doesn’t really address the problem.”
If you look at where these people are coming from, you realise that if they manage to get accommodation for six months that is an amazing achievement
Further reports have come and gone since, all of which suggest the court still has the same problems as it did 18 years ago. One of the more recent evaluations noted in 2015 was that out of the 602 people referred to the court by judges, half were deemed ineligible. Of those accepted, two-thirds were kicked off before completing the programme.
Those working in the court are under no illusions about the low graduation rate. “It’s frustratingly stuck,” drug court supervisor Tom Ward told this newspaper in 2017. “It’s difficult for people to move through the final stages, and it is a concern.”
They also say graduation rates do not tell the whole story. Many benefit from the programme in less obvious ways without necessarily completing it.
“If you look at where these people are coming from, you realise that if they manage to get hold of any sort of accommodation for six months that is an amazing achievement,” Ward said.
There is also hope to be found in the more recent statistics. Although the numbers taking part and graduating remain very low, they have grown significantly in the past few years.
So what is the future for the Dublin Drug Treatment Court? That is not at all clear. The 2017-2023 National Drugs Strategy, the most progressive government drugs programme in the history of the State, dodges the issue. It suggests yet another review.
For Collins, the solution is obvious. The drug court is “a failed experiment” and its resources should be channelled into established programmes in the health and probation services. They may be less appealing to middle-class voters eager for redemption stories, but they are far more effective.
“We’ve looked at drugs courts worldwide and found them to be extremely unconvincing,” Collins says. “These are paraded as wonderful, life-saving interventions which produce miracles, but the evidence just isn’t there.”