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Justice Minister Swan says drug court unsustainable without federal money

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Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan

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Manitoba's Justice Minister affirmed today the NDP government's support for the work of Winnipeg's drug treatment court, but expressed uncertainty the program can continue without Ottawa being at the table with ongoing funding.

"If the federal government was to walk away from the drug court, it would be a challenge to find a way to backfill yet another (federal funding) cut," Andrew Swan said.

Swan was responding to a Free Press article outlining how the court suspended taking in new clients as of May 1 due to a lack of a firm funding agreement with the federal government after April 1, 2015.

Swan said it was the chief judge of the provincial court, Ken Champagne, who suspended new intakes in consultation with the court's other partners, citing a fear new applicants wouldn't be able to graduate if the harm-reduction court had to suddenly close its doors.

It can take a year to two years for offenders accepted into the court to graduate, given the stringent requirements of the treatment plans they're placed on after agreeing to waive their trial rights.

Annual evaluations show the court has been very effective in reducing reoffending-rates of addicts who apply to the court as a way of avoiding jail time and to get help to end the cycle of crime they're trapped in due to their addictions.

The 2012-13 recidivism rate of graduates was 16 per cent, well below offenders who are dealt with in the regular court system.

While the federal government funds the Winnipeg court — in its ninth year as a pilot project — to the tune of just over $500,000 annually, Swan said the province, for its part, also spends about $450,000 in money and "in kind" services to make the court work.

In the end, the future of the court boils down to economics, Swan suggested.

He pointed to several cuts and freezes in federal funding — such as for Legal Aid Manitoba — which have resulted in the province shouldering greater financial burden for certain justice programs over recent years.

They were meant to operate as partnerships, Swan said, and it's unfair to Manitobans to have to bear more and more of the costs.

Multiple justice sources have told the Free Press the federal government is leery of continuing to fund the court without a commitment by Manitoba to take the court over long-term.

It also wants to see an end to the practice of its money going to the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba instead of provincial coffers, said the sources.

Swan said he'd not been made aware of any specific concern about this.

"I don't know why the federal government wouldn't want to continue to keep the project going in the long-term," he said. "In the absence of any specific concern, I just don't know," said Swan.

The office of Swan's federal counterpart, Justice Minister Peter MacKay, said Monday that discussions about the future of the court are ongoing.

Swan forwarded to the newspaper an April 22 letter from his office to MacKay's, noting the province's "great concerns" about the sustainability of the court without federal money continuing.

"Timely intervention has been demonstrated to be an important factor for the successful completion of the programming," Swan wrote. "That means we must be able to provide these services when an accused person is ready to make changes to his or her life.

"As such, it is critical that we are in a position to provide these services so as not to delay participation in the program because of financial restraint," Swan stated.

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Tuesday, May 6, 2014 at 10:24 PM CDT: Adds photo.

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