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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 May 2007, 19:01 GMT 20:01 UK
Drug courts target cycle of crime
By Gillian Hargreaves
BBC News home affairs reporter

Many addicts are caught in an endless cycle of drugs and crime. A new scheme being tested in the courts aims to break that link.

Syringe and heroin: Picture Science Photo Library

We'll call him "Jamie". He's 38-years-old, and a heroin and crack cocaine addict.

He's just been found guilty of theft in a magistrates' court in west London, accused of stealing 400 worth of goods from a local supermarket to fund a 100-a-day drug habit.

This case is one of dozens seen every day at the court. They call it the "revolving door" syndrome.

Someone is arrested by the police. Convicted of theft by the courts, they come out of prison homeless and helpless and start to take drugs again, then they start dealing to feed their habit.

Many of the offenders are seen by the same judge, over and over again.

Life of crime

Normally Jamie would be sent straight to the local jail. But the court is one of England's first drug courts.

It's a new scheme to try to get addicts who commit crimes like begging, street robbery and theft off drugs and away from a life of crime.

Fewer that 10% of people sent to prison for crimes which pay for their drug habit will ever kick the habit.

With such a low success rate the government is looking at other ways to try to break the cycle of drug addiction and theft.

So they've set up one drug court in West London and another in Leeds. They are pilot projects.

Personal judge

Jamie has to agree to a rigorous daily drug testing regime. He also has his own personal judge, Mr Justin Philips, to keep an eye on him.

He meets Judge Philips every six weeks and if he fails any of the drug tests or commits another crime the judge can send him straight to jail.

The court is having some success. Judge Philips estimates some 30% to 40% of offenders who go on this drugs court programme never reoffend.

Compare than to the estimated 10% who come out of jail and go straight.

It's also much cheaper for the tax payer. It costs 37,000 a year to keep a person in prison for 12 months, but only 2,000 to send a man in the drugs court programme for six to nine months.

Cheaper and the very early signs show it to be more successful.

Small numbers

But there are critics. After all, it's hugely controversial to allow criminals out on the streets instead of sending them to prison.

And some who work in the drug rehabilitation world fear that only criminals will get treatment.

The numbers going through the drugs court pilot are still very small and as it's been running for only 12 month experts are reluctant to declare it a success just yet.

Now the Department for Constitutional Affairs will have to decide whether drug courts should be extended across England and Wales.

Meanwhile Jamie has been drug free for the last 12 tests. The judge is delighted with his progress but is keeping the pressure on him.

The judge says he's not satisfied until an offender is permanently off drugs and no longer coming back to the court.

A judge speaks about the new approach

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