Pubdate: July 25 1999
Source: The Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Section: Ireland
Author: Damian McNeice
Related: additional treatment related articles can be found at 


DRUG addicts who commit crimes will be sent to rehabilitation centres
instead of prison under a scheme to be introduced in September.

John O'Donoghue, the justice minister, said drug courts would sentence
addicts to counselling rather than time in jail. The pilot programme is
designed to treat the cause of drug-related crime and would be open only to
those guilty of minor offences such as theft.

Lawyers have expressed concern that drug courts would allow dealers to
escape prosecution, creating a two-tier system of justice.

"There is a danger that it might be used as a smoke screen by dealers
hoping to walk free," said one senior barrister who declined to be named.

Two-thirds of all crimes detected in the Dublin region are committed by
users of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. There are an estimated
13,000 addicts in the capital city, many of whom resort to theft to feed
their habit.

At the moment, drug-using criminals are punished with imprisonment, a
system that support groups say does not work.

Half of those sent to jail for their crimes continue to use drugs while
serving time and many reoffend after they have been released.

Ian O'Donnell, director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said the justice
system had to emphasise treatment as well as punishment.

"Surveys of Mountjoy prison show that nearly two-thirds of prisoners have
been or are heroin addicts. Most of them are serving sentences for
repetitive minor offences [committed] to fund their habit," he said.

The drug court system was pioneered in the United States, where it has
reduced dramatically the rate at which drug-using criminals reoffend. More
than 230 such courts are in operation across the the United States and a
further 100 are due to be opened.

Marilyn Roberts, who heads the programme in the United States justice
department, said: "According to our evaluations, it is remarkably better
than any other form of probation or supervision. Recidivism rates for those
[who are] on or [have completed] the programme range from 2% to 20%, which
is very low for drug abusers."

O'Donnell said it was not clear how much the rehabilitation scheme would
cost to run, but added that if it succeeded in reducing crime rates, it
would make economic sense. At present each prisoner costs the state pounds
1,000 a week.

Under the new system, convicted criminals would be sent on rehabilitation
courses. However, they would only escape imprisonment if they abided by
conditions laid down in the programme.

Tommy Larkin, of the Current and Ex-users for the Improvement of Services
and Treatment group, expressed reservations about the new courts. "It is
dangerous when the law interferes in treatment. People who do not sincerely
want to become drug-free will go to rehabilitation in the hope that it will
be better than prison. They will undermine the whole system," he said. 
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