At Glasgow’s Drug Court, we saw how receiving a community based rather than a custodial sentence can help drug users to access practical support and to change their lives.
The Drug Court was initially set up as pilot service in 2001 along with a similar court in Fife (disbanded in 2013). Its aim has always been to reduce drug misuse and the offending linked to drug misuse. Consequently, community based sentences such as a Drug Treatment and Testing Order (DTTO) are based around practical treatments, compulsory drug testing on a twice weekly basis and regular attendance at court for reviews. A DTTO of up to eighteen months is a period of intense rehabilitation in the community supported by a team of social workers and addictions workers and is an alternative – not a substitute – for prison.
The court is different from the traditional set up in that the Sheriff addresses individuals from the bench, commending them when they’re doing well but also reprimanding them when they fail to demonstrate appropriate commitment. The Sheriff will often enquire how the individual is doing in other areas of their life including family relationships, employment and general health. Parents, partners and other family members can attend court in support of their loved ones and often the Sheriff will consult them directly in court in order to establish how the individual is progressing. The process is supportive and quite different from most people’s experience of the legal system. For example, people who complete their orders can ‘graduate’ from the Drug Court so that their success in becoming drug free and reducing their offending is publicly acknowledged and rewarded. This can have a tremendous impact on the self-esteem of individuals, particularly those whose experience of ‘authority’ in the past has not been positive and for whom the negative stigma of being a long time drug user is more familiar.
We were privileged to hear several success stories over the course of the day. One young man has had five negative drugs tests in a row and continues to make progress with the support of his partner (with whom he recently reconciled) and their young son. Another person is volunteering locally with his partner who also has drug issues. He reported that they are able to ‘keep each other right’ but are also trying out new things independently of each other. One person has had eleven negative drugs test in a row and was congratulated by the Sheriff. He asked for his community order to be reduced and the Sheriff agreed to consider this request in due course. When people have relapses, the Sheriff considers these within the context of their overall progress rather than automatically sending them to prison. For example, one person admitted a couple of ‘blips’ while on an order in Glasgow. However, the Sheriff chose not to rescind his order given his otherwise good progress. The individual plans to move back in with his formerly estranged partner in Ayrshire and it was agreed that he would continue to be monitored by social workers there.
The Drug Court can also increase support arrangements when individuals are struggling to meet the conditions of an existing order. For example, a person can have their Structured Deferred Sentence ‘converted’ to a Drug Treatment and Testing Order in order to access more help.
It’s not all good news. Where individuals fail to keep to the requirements of an order or commit an offence, they are immediately jailed. However, the Glasgow Drug Court is a great example of how the judiciary and the legal system in general can offer a more holistic approach to offenders.
A Scottish government review found that the main strengths of the Glasgow Drug Court are that it fast-tracks offenders into the courtroom, has a dedicated team who offer practical help and regular drug testing and has an efficient review system for every individual.