The Drug Court, like the Koori Court, is a specialist division of the Magistrate’s Court of Victoria. Its principle function is to deal with serious criminal offending committed by individuals with drug or alcohol dependency. Similar courts operate in four other States, as well as in other nations including the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Ireland. The aim of the Drug Court is to hear criminal matters and dispense justice – but to also focus on the rehabilitation of individuals whose criminal conduct may be an outcome of drug use. Victoria’s Drug Court was first piloted in 2002 by Labor attorney-general Rob Hulls, and legislated in the Sentencing (Amendment) Act of that year. The State government reviewed the pilot three years later, deeming it to be successful and committing to the operation of the Drug Court for another four years. It continues to operate today in one location, Dandenong Magistrate’s Court, with sittings on most days of the week.
Several conditions must be met before a matter can be dealt with by the Drug Court. Firstly, the offences must be within the jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Court. Secondly, the offences cannot be of a sexual nature or involving actual bodily harm. Serious indictable offences such as murder, attempted murder, manslaughter and assault will not be heard by the Drug Court. Thirdly, there must be reliable evidence that the offender is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Lastly, the offender must reside within an area serviced by the Drug Court. If these four conditions apply then the matter may be referred to the Drug Court rather than the Magistrates’ Court.
In the majority of cases, the Drug Court will sentence offenders to a Drug Treatment Order (DTO). This is, in effect, a prison sentence of a period not greater than two years – however the sentence is suspended for two years, provided the offender abides by a series of conditions. The conditions of a DTO are determined by the Drug Court magistrate, on a case-by-case basis. They are designed to stabilise the physical and mental health of offenders, reduce their drug use, improve their prospects of education or employment, and prevent future criminal behaviour. If an offender breaches one or more of these conditions their DTO may be cancelled by the Drug Court, which can order them to serve the remainder of the sentencing period in prison. Some of the conditions a DTO can place on offenders include:
- Not committing any offence punishable by imprisonment.
- Attending the Drug Court or appointments with court officials, social or healthcare workers.
- Accepting home visits from court officials, social or healthcare workers.
- Not leaving Victoria or changing addresses without the consent of the Drug Court.
- Submitting to treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, such as detoxification programs.
- Submitting to drug or alcohol testing, either at regular intervals or at random.
- Not associating with particular people or visiting certain locations.
Like the Victorian State governments other specialist courts formed in the mid 2000s, the Drug Court has provoked a range of views and responses. Professionals who work with drug-dependent offenders – therapists, counsellors, healthcare workers, parole officers – welcomed the move, arguing that repeatedly throwing them into prison did little for their rehabilitation. The Drug Court was opposed by the Liberal opposition, which was sceptical about its chances of success. An editorial in The Age looked at the operation of drug courts abroad, declaring them to be expensive and “no magic answer” to drug-related crime. When the three-year Drug Court pilot was examined in 2005, the Justice Department review also contained mixed results. It found that more than two-thirds of those dealt with by the Drug Court re-offended, while almost one-third of offenders given DTOs later breached them. There was a sharp decrease in re-offending, however, by those who remained on DTOs. Individuals who completed their two-year DTO also located employment and stable housing at much higher rates than those who failed to complete them.