Attorney General Geoff Plant shares his perspective
by The Honourable Geoff Plant, Attorney General of British Columbia
Substance dependence and related crimes are serious problems that affect everyone. The large number of substance dependent individuals in the Downtown Eastside has contributed to the creation of a concentrated enclave of crime and misery. An average of 147 overdose deaths occur each year in Vancouver alone. It is clear that the traditional approach to prosecutions in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside does not sufficiently address the issue of recidivism amongst drug dependent offenders, since it does not deal with the underlying cause of the criminal behaviour. We need to find new ways to address these issues.
I am pleased, therefore, that the Ministries of Attorney General and Public Safety and Solicitor General, in partnership with the federal Department of Justice, have recently established a drug treatment court pilot as one of a variety of responses to address this serious drug problem. A drug treatment court is an innovative approach to protecting the public and reducing the burden on the justice system caused by repeat offenders.
Drug treatment courts emerged in the United States as an effective option for individuals charged with criminal offences motivated by substance dependence. The first Canadian drug treatment court opened in Toronto in December 1998, as a four-year pilot. Preliminary evaluation of the Toronto Court has indicated encouraging results.
The Drug Treatment Court for Vancouver commenced operations on December 4, 2001, with a dedicated judge, Judge Jane Godfrey, defence and Crown counsel, as well as a drug treatment program director and a probation officer.
For the next four years, the drug treatment court will be funded by a $1.7 million grant from the federal government with matching funds from the province. The program will counsel up to 25 people in the first year with the number gradually increasing to 100 by the fourth year. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the project will be carried out to ensure that the drug treatment court is effective in reducing recidivism among participants, as well as being cost-effective and a good use of tax dollars.
At the discretion of the Crown, the drug treatment court option will be available for adults who are addicted to heroin and/or cocaine and have been charged under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act with possession, possession for the purpose of trafficking, or related Criminal Code offences. Other candidates may be facing charges for Criminal Code offences motivated by substance dependence. The program is not designed for first time offenders. Individuals who are trafficking for commercial gain will not be eligible, nor will violent offenders.
Persons accused of crimes motivated by drug dependence are screened by the prosecutor to assess eligibility for the Drug Treatment Court. Eligible participants are offered a choice between the regular judicial process or the Drug Treatment Court program. Participation in the program is completely voluntary. Participants plead guilty to the charges against them, then attend treatment five days a week and appear before Judge Godfrey twice a week.
Program participants commit to an extended and intensive period of treatment for dependence and frequent hearings before the Drug Treatment Court Judge to monitor program compliance, treatment and overall progress. Treatment includes stabilization, dealing with specific addictions and addressing long-term issues like housing and employment. Frequent drug testing and a wide range of sanctions and rewards are used by the program, based on realistic expectations concerning relapse and program compliance. Successful completion of the program is within a flexible timeframe, requires a significant period of treatment compliance and results in a withdrawal of the charge or a non-custodial sentence, depending on the seriousness of the crime.
The province’s participation in the Drug Treatment Court is an important step in dealing with the issue of substance dependence as an underlying cause of crime, and in recognizing that substance dependent individuals, the courts, and society in general, benefit from giving this group of offenders the option of addressing their serious health and social issues in a court-ordered treatment setting. The pilot affirms our commitment to look at solutions that can make a difference and offer good value for taxpayer dollars.
This article was published in the February 2002 issue of BarTalk. © 2002 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.