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Exclusive: Inside Bermuda’s Drug Treatment Court

Within a criminal justice system they have long been loath to trust, non-violent drug offenders are finding empathy, therapy and support — with astonishing results.

Clients who complete Bermuda's progressive Drug Treatment Court — a court-supervised treatment programme — are significantly less likely to commit crimes again than those who serve prison time, according to figures provided by Court Services.

In exchange for offering anonymity to participants, The Royal Gazette has been allowed unprecedented access into the court, where the stories told can range from life-affirming tales of triumph, to portraits of the heart-rending realities of substance abuse and the dark tragedies that lie at the root of addiction.

In the ten years the court has been in operation, only seven percent of participants reoffend while in the programme.

In 2013, just four percent of participants were rearrested, compared to Westgate Correctional Facility where inmates reoffending at a rate of 34 percent within a year of release.

In America, where drug treatment courts are beginning to become established, research by the Department of Justice shows recidivism rates averaging between eight and fourteen percent.

Furthering the court's popularity in the US are financial savings of $254 million in prison-related expenses for the state of New York alone.

The scenes that unfold within Bermuda's court are unlike any other.

The presiding magistrate, Juan Wolffe, opens sessions casually, asking clients about their health and well-being and often exchanging jokes before getting down to nuts and bolts of proceedings — rehabilitation reports which are read aloud in legalese by members of Court Services.

He asks questions, lots of questions, extracting with the delicacy of a professional psychologist emotions and memories the court's ‘clients' have long suppressed.

The drug court's high rate of success — estimated between 75 and 80 percent — underscores what prosecutors and defence attorneys alike have long suspected: therapeutic jurisprudence rather than jail time is far more potent and cost-effective in preventing future criminal behaviour.

Part of the court's effectiveness can be attributed to the screening process; a place in Drug Treatment Court is reserved only for those willing to submit to intensive supervision in order to achieve rehabilitation.

But even then, hesitation to buy into the programme can persist, according to Mr Wolffe.

“You have to take into consideration that these are individuals who, for many years, have not only used drugs, but have also engaged in manipulative behaviour,” he said after overseeing one day's proceedings.

“So complying with, or being in, a structured environment is not something they are initially used to or responsive to.

“But you know, for them, the biggest motivation is to be clean. They're tired, they're absolutely tired of their lives you know, and so when they come on they are engaged fully.”

That motivation is perhaps best exemplified in an exchange between Mr Wolffe and a client who found himself frustrated at his inability to build a traditional Bermuda kite during a therapy workshop.

“But you're Bermudian!” Mr Wolffe objected.

“I know,” the client replied. “I kept saying I couldn't make a kite, but then someone said: ‘if you cant make a f***ing kite, how the f**k are you going to recover? Well I can tell you right now, your worship, I got three kites hanging in my window.”

The former addict went on to describe his battles with the urge to use, beaming with pride at his own ability to control his addiction.

Mr Wolffe told the man he had reached a milestone. The room applauded.

According to defence counsel Saul Dismont, the approach puts responsibility in the clients' hands, while providing them with the structure and tools to achieve their own rehabilitation.

But at the centre of the drug court's success, he said, are the participants themselves.

“The people who deserve the credit for successful rehabilitation are the people that do it,” said Mr Dismont.

“Drug Treatment Court just provide them the support, but clearly the most important part of that support is the availability of appropriate and effective rehabilitative services.”

Divided into five phases, clients graduate through the programme as they complete certain requirements, beginning with 30 consecutive days of sobriety.

The speed at which they move through the programme depends entirely on the clients' ability to reach the requirements of each phase, which may vary depending on their individual needs.

Clients are told not to rush, to move at a pace that works best for them as they forge on into recovery.

Many take several years before they complete the programme, which is only possible after 365 consecutive days without a relapse.

During that time, clients form relationships, uniting under the shared torment of addiction and a commitment to rehabilitation.

So strong are the bonds formed in the courtroom — which resembles more of a group-therapy session rather than any kind of criminal proceeding — graduates often return years after finishing, just to talk.

“Many of them have had the experience of these sort of traditional court models which can at times be adversarial, intimidating and authoritative,” said Mr Wolffe.

“In drug court, while we do have certain rules and regulations and compliance, they feel more comfortable in the setting and I think they respond to that.”

Magistrate Juan Wolffe

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Published March 28, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated March 27, 2014 at 11:44 pm)

Exclusive: Inside Bermuda’s Drug Treatment Court

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