TRUE OPINION: Watching the comings-and-goings of the local drugs court isn’t for the faint-hearted. But it should be compulsory viewing as it highlights all the failures of the War on Drugs, writes Gary Johnston.
Dave* has a face full of second prizes. His nose looks like it’s been broken more often than a Barnaby Joyce vow of chastity, his eyes are puffy and swollen and a route map of broken veins trace Ley lines of discernible hard-living from his cheeks to his chin and beyond.
Dave has attitude however, you wouldn’t be game to feel sorry for him. Much more likely, you’d cross the street to avoid his gaze, a seriously intimidating comportment wholly undiluted by the ultimate fuck you, a swastika, inked Charles Manson-style, plumb in the middle of his forehead.
Dave looks like a junkie and, of his own volition, that’s exactly what he is.
But appearances as well as appellations can be deceptive. Because Dave is articulate, thoughtful and funny, or at any rate he is on the day I meet him,waiting his turn. He’s at the Dandenong Drug Court, a Victorian initiative designed as an alternative to the normal penalties imposed by Magistrates Courts with regard to the ever increasing — some say epidemic — levels of offenders with drug and alcohol issues.
The swastika tat, he tells me, “don’t mean nothin’. I was drug fucked at the time. I’ve put all that shit behind me. These days, I just stay home and play me cello”.
He’s joking. At least I think he is. But you never know.
To have your matter heard in the Dandenong Drug Court you need to live locally, plead guilty to the charge and can convince the court that a significant dependency on drugs or alcohol was a critical factor in your criminal behaviour.
Dave qualifies on all three counts fronting up today on four separate charges, all of which were committed as a result of an ongoing, long-term, heroin addiction.
“I’ve been shootin’ up smack as long as I can remember,” he says bumming a cigarette from a sharp suited lawyer who obviously decides it wouldn’t be sensible to refuse.
“But I don’t do it every day, or even every week. It’s recreational, parties and stuff…
“Yeah, nah, mate,” he says before I can even register the merest hint of skepticism.
“I’m only yankin’ yer chain, I’m a fuckin’ addict. I mean, look at me!”
It would be easy to be cynical about the Drug Court and indeed, many people are. All you have to do, runs the usual tough-on-crime narrative, is ‘fess up to a drug problem and the magistrate will come over all wet nurse by sentencing you to a slap on the wrist DTO (Drug Treatment Order) and sending you home, free to take as many drugs and commit as much crime as you like.
The reality is somewhat different.
There are specific treatment and supervision conditions to every DTO, which provide that, for the duration of the Order, usually two years, no further offences can be committed. In addition the offender must attend the Drug Court when required, report to a Community Corrections Centre, and undergo treatment as specified.
Failing to complete the programme or any further re-offending will mean that the DTO is revoked and any remaining sentence will then be served in prison.
“It’s like drinking at the last chance saloon,” says Dave, who’s obviously done his research. “Or, in my case, shooting up at the last chance gallery.”
But then, as the Court opens for business, back on 9.30am, his attitude changes.
He becomes less facetious, more serious and, to my eyes at any rate, genuine and sincere.
“I want to stop takin’ drugs mate. And I can’t fuckin’ do that in jail, can I?”
It’s an open secret to everyone involved in the criminal justice system that there are drugs in prison.
Depending on who you ask, they arrive in a number of ways; visitors, staff, tennis balls over the fence, secreted in the pages of bibles, to name only a few. Despite state of the art x-ray machines and associated vigilance, it seems to be impossible to stop the influx.
There’s even a school of thought, which no one will ever admit to, that suggests some levels of drug availability is not altogether a bad thing, since, depending on the substance of course, it can lead to a more relaxed, more biddable cohort.
What it doesn’t lead to however, is any sort of realistic rehabilitation.
A bit like prison in general, then, some might say.
The correction system in Australia, is in crisis. Everyone knows it. As well as being expensive, incarceration is laughably ineffective with a huge proportion of offenders returning to jail within two years of release. An ever increasing number of those offenders are, like Dave, deep rooted drug users for whom jail has become the ultimate revolving door.
“I don’t want to go to jail mate,” he reiterates prior to his appearance before the magistrate. “I ain’t frightened of it. I’m more afraid of comin’ off smack. But I want to get off. If I didn’t, I’d just got to jail and do me time, wouldn’t I? Again.”
Therein lies the rub. If it’s easy to get drugs in jail, and clearly it is, what’s the point in sending addicts there?
Easy answer: no point. If we as a society are genuinely committed to addressing the problem, one which is ever increasing, monumental, then a new strategy is not only required, but essential. And such strategies do exist.
The Dandenong Drug Court is certainly one, but as things stand, it’s merely a Lilliputian programme dwarfed by a national policy of incarceration based on the mistaken principle of punishment and deterrence, which is not so much failing, as coming apart at the seams.
Compare our situation with that of Norway, considered very much the gold standard in corrections, where the so called the narkotikaprogrammet (narcotics programme) has been introduced nationwide. Consider also the situation in Portugal, with all personal possession of drugs totally decriminalised resulting in drug use falling exponentially. Similar policies have also been adopted in Uruguay, The Netherlands, Colombia, Spain and Ireland, a clear indication that the drug issue is truly global.
Nothing, or the Dandenong Drug Court apart, not much. Not nearly enough.
Dave was given a DTO. As he told me himself, there’s a long, hard road ahead of him, one that might not, given his history and the extent of his addiction, lead to eventual success. But, surely, it’s better than the alternative.
“I’m goin’ home now mate,” he tells me as he leaves the court. “Well, me car, since that’s where I been sleepin’.”
“But,” he says with conviction, “I might be homeless, but I ain’t fuckin’ hopeless.”
Dave is definitely not hopeless. But it seems, the misguided, empty headed and reactionary insistence on incarceration for drug offenders, in the full and open knowledge of its impotence and feebleness, most certainly is.
* Not his real name