Page last updated at 14:29 GMT, Wednesday, 28 May 2008 15:29 UK

Specialist drug courts 'working'

By Marc Settle
BBC News

Man injecting drugs
Drug addicts are responsible for more than half of all reported crimes

Specialist courts which deal only with drugs offenders are proving a success, the government has said.

Evidence from pilot projects housed at magistrates' courts in Leeds and London shows offenders are less likely to commit crimes again, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw told BBC Radio 4's The World At One.

Addicts - who would otherwise be sent to jail - agree to a rigorous drugs testing programme and can be imprisoned if they fail them or commit another offence.

There has been criticism of the initiative's approach but Mr Straw says the government is looking to expand the court scheme to four more areas across England.

"There is only a point in rolling this out to other courts if there is clear evidence that offenders are less likely to re-offend at the end of a programme through the drugs courts than either through a standard community sentence or prison.

"There is good, clear statistical evidence that this works," he said.

Stealing for habit

Drug addicts who steal to finance their habit are responsible for more than half of all reported criminal offences.

Their regular appearances in court have led to what has become known as the "revolving door" syndrome: after arrest and conviction for theft by the courts, they come out of prison homeless and helpless and start to take drugs again, then they start dealing or stealing to finance their habit, before ending up in prison once more.

The government opened the drug court at West London Magistrates' Court in Hammersmith in December 2005 in an attempt to break this cycle.

The court caters for low-level offenders who have committed drugs-related crimes.

We wouldn't get the success rate we have if we treated people with the cold indifference expected of the judiciary
District Judge Justin Phillips

The district judges who sit in the cases are specially trained in drug law, drug awareness and drug rehabilitation.

Instead of being sent to jail, offenders have to agree to undertake mandatory drug testing, coupled with a series of reviews where the offender returns to the court.

The UK's first specialist drug courts were set up as a pilot scheme by the Scottish Government in Glasgow in 2001.

Casual approach

District Judge Justin Phillips, who sits at the west London court, says the personalised nature of the scheme is the key to its success.

He told the BBC: "We wouldn't get the success rate we have if we treated people with the cold indifference expected of the judiciary." Instead of wearing formal attire, he often wears jeans and trainers.

He made me feel like I was somebody again, I looked up to him
Recovered addict

He meets offenders every six weeks to review their progress. He gives them his mobile phone number which they can ring if they feel tempted either to commit another crime or to buy some drugs.

One 36-year-old former career criminal and addict admitted that the judge's approach was "something slightly unusual, which throws you out of your comfort zone", while another recovered addict added that "he made me feel like I was somebody again, I looked up to him. Without his stature, I might not have recovered."

Critics argue that the scheme has the wrong focus and says it ignores the victims of crime.

David Davies, the Conservative MP for Monmouth, who is also a special constable, said judges "should be doing their utmost to remove convicted drugs offenders from the streets, rather than allowing them to run rampant around the community, failing one test after another, committing further crimes".

The Justice Secretary, however, insisted that the project did put victims in the forefront of criminal justice policy, as the results of the drugs' courts programme showed fewer crimes were being committed overall.


SEE ALSO
Drugs court trial extended
06 Oct 03 |  Scotland

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