HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Innovative Court Helps Addicts
Pubdate: Sat, 13 Feb 1999
Source: Vancouver Sun (Canada)
Copyright: The Vancouver Sun 1999
Author: Ian Mulgrew, Vancouver Sun


TORONTO -- Under the verdigris roof of landmark Old City Hall, now the
country's busiest courthouse, the latest experiment to curb illegal
drug addiction is under way in courtroom 114.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, qualifying offenders assemble on
four wooden pews, or sit in a bus-sized prisoner's dock, and await
their turn to address a tall, balding, Ichabod Crane of a man, Ontario
provincial court Judge Paul Bentley.

As the result of an 18-month campaign by Bentley, the federal
government agreed in December to provide $1.6 million over four years
for this pilot drug-treatment court.

Its clients come in all hues, shapes, sizes and from all ethnic
backgrounds: a 31-year-old Jamaican immigrant in a designer sweater, a
43-year-old white hooker in a grimy floral coat, a 36-year-old travel
agent trying to disappear into anonymous black leather, a 19-year-old
in trendy Roots-wear with his mom and a transvestite still quivering
from his/her last blast.

"You could probably get high smoking his urine today," a drug
counsellor quips.

But they're all here as volunteers for an intrusive, intensive program
of treatment that will end only when they are free of drugs, working
or enrolled in a full-time educational program.

It's this, jail or continuing to live the harrowing existence of an

Among the roughly 25 cases that have so far been accepted by the
court, there's a range of races, human testament to addiction's
carelessly democratic choice of victims.

"Our early estimates, from the judge's experience and the Crown's
experience . . . they thought 80 per cent of the clients would be
black males," said Bill Robb, coordinator of the cocaine program for
the addiction and mental health centre and a key player in the court.

"The first six or seven clients we saw were white females. It was just
the luck of the draw."

In Canada's largest metropolis, the acrid smell of burning rock wafts
through the tenement-like high-rises of the Jane-Finch corridor in the
north, the billiard halls of St. Clair Avenue in midtown, the rooming
houses of Parkdale, the warren of Regents Park, the suburban sprawl of
northeastern Scarborough . . . From the suburban doughnut shop to the
downtown hotels, in Toronto, you can get anything you want.

"We can walk down here in Kensington Market," Robb added, "and buy
from a dozen dealers within the next 20 minutes if we wanted to. It's
there. It's all over the place."

Cocaine and crack are most in demand, according to police intelligence
and addiction research, but Mistah H, heroin, is here, too.

"The 'operations' are the same [as in any major North American city],"
said Detective Courtland Booth, a member of the Toronto police central
drug information unit who is participating in the project.

"Three or four people, working together -- one handles the money, one
is the front man who does the actual verbal sale -- but you give the
money to this person and you'll get the rock off that person. That
occurs on the Lakeshore, parts of Northern Toronto, Scarborough . . .
There's no one place in the city that could be called THE drug spot to
go to."

Police estimate there are somewhere between 8,000 and 13,000 addicts,
the root cause of much urban crime and blight.

Until now, arrest, court-ordered treatment and imprisonment have
failed to reduce the drug-dependent population or curb their most
disturbing habits.

"There's frustration in that on the homicide you go out and there's a
sense of closure," Booth explained. "You can feel good for a week
after closing a case. With street-level drug enforcement you don't get
that. One guy gets replaced with another, it's that lucrative. Or
they're back at it themselves within days."

Judges, too, are feeling impotent.

"I never felt we did very much other than warehousing them," Bentley

He says his frustration reached a boiling point in the summer of 1997,
when he went to enter an offender's name and his court computer
wouldn't accept it. The man had appeared before Bentley too many times

"I was powerless to change anything and I was powerless to help this
man who wanted help, or said he wanted help," Bentley recalled.

The incident prompted Bentley to investigate specialized courts
originally established in 1989 by now-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno
in Dade County, Fla.

These drug courts proved so effective in combating recidivism, that
there now are several hundred operating from Portland, Ore., to New
York, N.Y., putatively directing addicts into treatment, retraining
and a new life. According to the U.S. justice department, the
recidivism rate for those who graduate from such programs may be as
low as four per cent, compared with 45 per cent for regular drug convicts.

"I started visiting various courts in the United States, speaking with
the various judges and said, 'Hey, this could work here,' " Bentley

He returned to Toronto and organized a meeting of Crown attorneys,
defence lawyers, parole and probation officers, addiction and mental
health workers.

Together, this committee organized an application for funds from
Ottawa under the federal government's crime initiative.

"The community wasn't getting anything out of me sending these people
to jail for four months at a cost of $45,000 a year," Bentley said.
"That is so much more expensive than drug treatment, which we estimate
at $4,000 a year."

Bentley began hearing his first cases in December, and it's expected
he will handle perhaps 200 offenders a year.

Anyone charged with possession, possession for the purpose, or
trafficking, and who has a drug dependency can file the one-page
application with the Crown Attorney to be transferred to the
drug-treatment court.

"If the Crown says no, that's the end of it," emphasized Bentley. "The
Crown has the initial screening. Anybody who's committed crimes of
violence, anyone who is a commercial trafficker, is not eligible."

Once accepted by the Crown, an applicant appears before Bentley to
explain why he or she wants to enter the program. They are then sent
for a medical assessment.

"Are they really a drug addict, or drug dependent as we like to call
them? Or are they simply somebody who's a commercial trafficker who
thinks they can slip into the system this way and get out of jail . .
. are just trying to pull a ruse on us?" Bentley said.

"If the report from [the centre for addiction and mental health] is
the person is eligible, they go immediately into treatment. They can
be in treatment within 48 to 72 hours."

But not before signing away their rights. All their

"Remember drug-treatment court is optional, they don't have to go into
it if they don't want to," Bentley said. "If they want to, they must
sign a contract and they must sign it with a lawyer who explains the
implications to them. They lose their Charter rights, they lose their
right to speedy sentencing, speedy trial, they basically give up all
their legal rights as we know it.

"We've had a few people say, 'This isn't for me,' and they have gone
back to regular court. I don't hold it against them."

There are two tracks for accepted offenders, depending on the
seriousness of their crime.

For those charged with possession, the program is a diversion from
normal criminal court and, if they complete treatment, charges will be
withdrawn. If they fail or are expelled from treatment, they are
returned to criminal court for trial.

On the second track, those charged with more serious possession or
trafficking charges must plead guilty, but sentencing is postponed
until they have completed treatment, which could take from eight to 15

"If they think they have a Charter defence, if they feel they have
some other type of defence they should not be pleading guilty and
going into drug treatment court," Bentley said.

"They should only be going into drug-treatment court if they want to
be drug-free. If they want to do anything else, don't come to
drug-treatment court."

If these more serious offenders make it through treatment, the judge
may suspend sentence, place them on probation or impose a fine.
Bentley isn't sure what he's going to do yet, since no one has graduated.

But he is sure that if they fail or are expelled from the program,
they will go to jail.

"There is the stick," he added, noting trafficking in this
jurisdiction nets from five months to 18 months, depending on the

Once accepted by the court, cocaine addicts are enrolled in
counselling programs and heroin dependents are weaned on to methadone.
Participants are subjected to random urine analysis and must return to
court regularly to keep Bentley apprised of their progress.

"For these people, their whole life is wrapped up in coming to court
twice a week, attending counselling sessions three or four times a
week, then going to life-skills training, so they basically have no
free time," he said.

"As they come through the court, and we've seen it already in two
months, there have been amazing changes in some of these people. One
woman in particular who was a street-level prostitute, she was about
40 but looked 60. She just couldn't handle it any more and probably
couldn't do any tricks because of what she looked like. She said,
'Hey, I can't take this. Help me out here. I've gone through lots and
lots of programs.'

"In a month on this program," Bentley continued, "she was not using.
She had found another place with the help of the agencies and she had
two job interviews, for real jobs. For her, it was just incredible.
She was a completely changed woman. I didn't recognize her when I
called her name out."

He acknowledged that success is an exception: "I'm not suggesting that
they will all be like that, but it makes us excited as a team that
there is this kind of progress."

Bentley said that as participants improve, they'll be asked to come
back to court less often.

"They will then go more and more into life-skills training, education
and eventually we hope to be able to discharge them when [a] they're
free of drugs, [b] they've moved from the milieu of where they are and
[c] they've got themselves either a job or they're enrolled in a
full-time educational program. We won't let them go unless they have
those minimum standards. Just to let them go while they're still at
the Seaton House [men's hostel] is a recipe for them to come back."

Providing that holistic support, however, may prove difficult in a
city where the working poor and the drug-free unemployed can't find
affordable housing or a job.

"We know we are going to have serious difficulty with housing," Robb
said. "There are 42,000 families waiting for appropriate housing now."

Yet think of the savings, Bentley said. If this program works, it will
relieve the pressure on jail overcrowding, reduce police overtime
costs in attending court and reduce criminal activity.

"Drug-treatment court stands to save the province millions and
millions of dollars," added Robb.

Everyone who graduates from the program will be tracked by an
independent evaluation team that will monitor the effects of treatment
and produce regular cost-benefit analyses, Bentley said. He is
enthusiastically optimistic.

"Why would they want to come for nine months, see me and go for
counselling unless they are really sure they have had enough of the
streets, of being homeless, of being drug dependent and they want to
make a new life?" he asked.

"Those are the people we want. We feel you have to want to do it. But
even wanting to do it is not sufficient, that's why we're here."
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