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Spending the money at the front end — and keeping people out of prison

The therapeutic methods that makes Drug Treatment Court so effective in rehabilitating nonviolent drug offenders is not to be overlooked when considering more progressive measures for the wider criminal justice system, according to drug court Magistrate Juan Wolffe and others.

In order to benefit from one of the most effective treatment options available on the Island — Drug Treatment Court — those addicted to drugs must first commit a crime.

Putting in measures to offer drug court treatments to addicts before they commit an offence, said Mr Wolffe, could bring down the crime-rate, and for a fraction of the price.

“I think when you look the $80,000 it costs to incarcerate somebody — and remember, these individuals have been going in and out of prison for awhile — I can tell you now, it's much better, we think, to spend money the front end rather than on the back end, at a stage when we actually can keep people out of prison. I think that's got to be economically beneficial.”

“The vast majority of addicts — the ones who steal or break into a house or maybe even rob somebody — they're doing it so that they can sell the property for drugs.

“They're not doing it because they like it, or because they're just bad people, they're doing it to get high.”

Mr Wolffe said that some addicts can become so prolific in their search for goods to sell in order to feed their addiction, the number of break-in, burglaries and thefts can drop entirely in some neighbourhoods once that person finds treatment.

Identifying the cause of an individual's criminality, agreed drug court defence council Saul Dismont, is proving to be far more effective in rehabilitating nonviolent offenders.

“Certainly when one considers the success rate, in terms of recidivism, and then compares it with other approaches, one can certainly learn from the drug court approach,” said Mr Dismont.

“Internationally now, there's a new approach to crime in general, an alternative sentencing approach.

“People are recognising more and more that there are significant contributing factors in people's criminal behaviour — environment, education, mental health, drug addiction — and putting them through the normal system where they have a history of getting out of it, then going back into it again, then they come out of it again ... it's just a revolving door.

“Whereas now, Governments and legislators around the world are focusing on the causes of the crime, and even sometimes at the cost of the punitive measures, and they're seeing better results.”

On the surface, the logic seems simple: preventing people from slipping into a cycle of incarceration is better for them, the prisons, and the economy as a whole.

A person who has funded a drug habit their entire life contributes very little to the economy if they are spending their money within a black market.

Take away the addiction early, and a lifetime of earnings that would have been spent on drugs are instead circulated through the economy.

But Senator and Junior Minister for National Security and Legal Affairs, Jeff Baron, warned that casting such a wide net over the motivations for criminal behaviour could leave out the less obvious driving forces.

“We have this paradox: a successful treatment programme that is being applied on the back end — that is, after arrest and process,” said Sen Baron.

“However a case-by-case analysis may tease out rich detail as to offending patterns and specific motivators of offenders and their appetite for drugs.

“Preventing people from drifting into crime by improving social conditions, strengthening community institutions and enhancing recreational, educational and employment opportunities is effective, but not necessarily more effective than robust policing and effectual corrections institutions.”

For Sen Baron, the real obstacle is overturning the social stigma associated with addiction.

The negative attitude toward addiction, said Sen Baron, ultimately hinders the addict's ability to recover, and encourages further criminal behaviour once an addict finds themselves shunned from the wider community because of what both the Government and the courts recognise as a disease.

“We still — somehow — underrate the cultural persuasion of drugs in Bermuda. That's why the stigma of addiction is strong. This is a central challenge for our community.

“Once you inflexibly accept something as a negative status quo, [such as] drug addiction, it becomes holistically difficult to punch through the social stigmas and get those addicted to drugs significant help before they engage in further, more overt and sometimes aggressive, crimes.”

But softer punitive approaches should not be reserved for drug offenders only, Mr Wolffe pointed out.

“The bottom line is that, whether they are a drug addict or a criminal, they are people.

“They're people first, and every person deserves to be respected. But the vast majority of people who commit a crime, they were people once too, you know, and they had lives too.

“Hopefully there will come a day when we wouldn't need to have drug court, but we're a long ways from that.”

A courtroom inside the new Magistrates' Courts inside the Dame Lois Browne Evans Building.

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Published March 29, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated March 28, 2014 at 11:09 pm)

Spending the money at the front end — and keeping people out of prison

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