Dr John Collins: 'Drug courts have served as 'window dressing' - and it's time we moved on'
Ireland is undergoing a serious shift in how it approaches drug-demand issues. Instead of relying on the criminal justice system to deal with people who use drugs, the national drugs strategy now rightly highlights drugs as a public health issue first and foremost.
This increased recognition poses questions for the continuation of the drug court in Ireland. Firstly, drug courts have traditionally emerged as an attempt to "soften" the criminal justice orientation of drug policy in areas where a "war on drugs" approach predominates. The principle is that drug-involved offenders would benefit from diversion from the criminal justice system if they complete a rigorous, court supervised, treatment regimen.
The reality, too often, is that drug courts produce very limited outcomes for a very small cohort of individuals.
Further, the basic principle that individuals need to be "forced" into treatment belies our best experience and practice globally. Drug treatment is most effective when individuals are self-motivated and are provided a client-focused set of services which meets their complex needs. Drug courts, as such, too often represent a blunt approach to a complex health problem.
Although some jurisdictions have demonstrated some limited successes in how they operate, the Irish experience has been unequivocally underwhelming. The number of individuals admitted to the drug court programme has been minuscule in comparison to the numbers of people requiring access to treatment services. Further, the completion rate is extremely low. Repeated efforts to increase client uptake and completion rates have failed.
Further, the goal of utilising the court to make health and criminal justice services work more effectively appears to have had little success, as highlighted by long-term evaluations of the Dublin Drug Treatment Court's operations by Trinity College Professor Shane Butler.
Lastly, the Dublin Drug Treatment Court has raised serious due process questions since its initiation, with many suggesting it operates in a legally questionable manner whereby clients must surrender certain basic legal rights in order to participate, with no clear legislative basis underpinning it.
The reasons for these policy weaknesses ultimately emerge from a failed policy transfer. Drug courts are an intervention developed in the United States to reduce the harm the criminal justice system was imposing on drug-involved offenders. At the height of the war on drugs, vast numbers of individuals ended up in the criminal justice system and drug courts emerged as a mechanism to try to extricate them.
In Ireland the idea of continuing to build a health intervention within the courts system ultimately seems misplaced. As Butler wrote, the drug court served as window dressing at a time when the State wanted to show it was looking at alternatives to a simple criminalisation-based approach to drug use. As we now move more unequivocally towards a greater public health-based approach to drug use, it is perhaps time to remove the window dressing and focus efforts and resources where they have been proven most effective.
Almost two decades after the pilot began, Ireland should be willing to finally move beyond drug courts.
Dr John Collins, executive director of the US's LSE's International Drug Policy Unit