New drug court offers rehabilitation instead of jail

By Melissa Mancini

The federal government is opening a drug treatment court in Ottawa to rehabilitate those with drug addictions instead of putting them in jail.

The court will be located in the Ottawa Courthouse on Elgin Street and deal with charges such as possession and minor assaults where addictions are at the root of the offence.

Some people who are charged with drug-driven offences would be offered the choice to take the program as an alternative to going to regular court.

“They would avoid a jail sentence or criminal charge,” says Lawrence Greenspon, a lawyer and president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa. “It’s a form of release on bail with strict conditions so people can beat their addiction.”

Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services would assess the person charged with the crime.

If approved for the program the accused would appear in the drug treatment court twice a week for one year.

These court appearances are so the person with the addiction checks in with the judges and lawyers at the court so they can assess how their treatment is progressing.

During the year those approved for the program would be under judicial supervision with sanctions set out by the court. Participants get substance abuse treatment and have to undergo random and frequent drug testing.

The person who is in the program is charged with a crime. Their status in the legal system is equivalent of being released on bail.

Like those who are released on bail, the person has still been charged with a crime but is not incarcerated. They have to adhere to conditions set out by the court just as someone released on bail would be.

The charged person would also have to abide by the conditions imposed by the court and attend counselling.

Judges presiding over the court will rotate says Greenspon. When the court opens Peter Wright and Judy Beaman will be presiding.

Greenspon says the purpose of the drug treatment court is to keep addicts from a life in and out of the courts and jail cells.

The court will only be able to run about 30 people through the program each year. This does not include those who are assessed for the program but not accepted. Those who are not accepted go into the regular court system.

“If there is a demand, then we will get 30 people and if there is success hopefully that will mean expansion,” says Greenspon.

The Hintonburg Community Association’s security committee, which helped lobby for a drug treatment court in Ottawa.

“The court is the best of all options,” says Cheryl Parrott, chair of the security committee. “Addiction is a very powerful thing and this is the only way we can attempt to solve the root problem.”

Parrott says the security committee plans to lobby to increase government funding for the court because jail time doesn’t solve the problem.

The drug treatment courts will hopefully mean less crime in Ottawa. According to a June press release from the federal departments of justice and health, drug treatment courts in Vancouver and Toronto have shown potential in lowering addiction and repeat offences.

Parrott says any success in reducing addiction would make the program worthwhile.

The success for the community will be more long term. She says the payoff will be seen in things like less need for policing and lower health care costs for all taxpayers.

Greenspon says the court will save the justice system time and money because it will have to deal with less repeat offenders. But he says, “the main thing here is to save lives.”