Drug Court in Victoria
The first Victorian Drug Court was established in 2002 with the intent to protect the community by focusing on the rehabilitation of offenders from drug addiction and drug related crime.
A key feature of the Drug Court is that a Drug Court Magistrate will be responsible for supervising offenders placed on Drug Treatment Orders. If the person placed on the order does not comply, the Magistrate can impose sanctions, being short periods of imprisonment and in circumstances where the person engages in further offending and demonstrates a complete disregard for the order, the magistrate may re-impose the entire immediate term of imprisonment that was held in suspense. Conversely the magistrate has powers to provide rewards to participants that excel in the program.
The relevant magistrates are supported by multidisciplinary teams comprising of case managers, clinicians, specialist community correction officers, and a dedicated police prosecutor and defence lawyer. Together, these teams work to provide treatment and support, and address underlying factors that contribute to offending. Participants are required to comply with alcohol and drug testing, undertake alcohol and drug counselling and regularly attend court review hearings, clinical advisor appointments and case management appointments.
Following the commencement of the Drug Court in Dandenong, a Drug Court in Melbourne was established in 2017. In 2020, a Drug Court Division within the County Court of Victoria was established, and in 2021 Drug Courts are set to open in Shepparton and Ballarat.
Eligibility for Drug Court
To have a case heard in a Drug Court, the accused must live in a catchment area of a Drug Court. Catchment areas for the Dandenong and Melbourne Drug Courts can be found here, homeless persons or persons who do not have an ordinary place of residence can apply to access the Drug Court.
In addition to living within a catchment area of a Drug Court, the accused must meet criteria listed in section 18Z of the Sentencing Act. Specifically, the accused person must –
- Plead guilty to the offence or offences
- Be dependent on drugs and / or alcohol that contributed to their offending
- Be facing an immediate term of imprisonment not exceeding two years
- Agree in writing to the making of a Drug Treatment Order and comply with the treatment and supervision component of such order
Accused persons who have been convicted of a sexual offence or are subject to a parole order or sentencing order of the County or Supreme Courts are not able to access the Drug Court. Additionally, accused persons who have been charged with an offence involving the infliction of actual bodily harm are unable to access the Drug Court, unless the harm is of a minor nature.
Research has found that the Drug Courts are more effective at addressing drug related offending than the use of traditional criminal justice approaches.
An evaluation of the Victorian Drug Court found that few participants who start a Drug Treatment Order received by the Drug Court go on to complete the order. However, those who do complete the program were found to –
- Improve their health by reducing medical, psychiatric, and drug and alcohol risk factors; and
- Experience improvements in their family relationships and housing stability.
The same evaluation involved a comparative study between a small cohort of Drug Court Victoria participants and a Control Cohort of individuals who had been released from a two-year sentence of imprisonment on similar primary offences. Amongst other things, the evaluation found –
- A 31 per cent lower rate of reoffending for the Drug Court of Victoria Cohort compared with the Control Cohort within the first 12 months
- Drug Court of Victoria Cohort members had a 67 per cent reduction in more serious offences, in comparison to a 47 percent decrease for the Control Cohort
- Drug Court of Victoria Cohort members had a 90 percent reduction in trafficking offences; 54 per cent reduction for assaults with a weapon; 60 per cent reduction in possession of a weapon offences; 70 percent reduction for burglary and deception offences; and 30 per cent reduction for theft of motor vehicles
- Control Cohort members had an increase in drug-related offences.
As criminal defence lawyers the Victorian Drug Court is a valuable tool that can be utilised to both assist clients to stay out of gaol whilst also encouraging and supporting long standing rehabilitation.