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Court for drug addicts at risk

Program lauded for saving tax dollars

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Manitoba defence lawyer Michael Dyck is photographed outside the law courts and remand centre. Dyck predicts there will be a rise in jail populations, more pressure on community-based programs and more desperate addicts if the Winnipeg drug-treatment court doesn't continue in the future. =

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Manitoba defence lawyer Michael Dyck is photographed outside the law courts and remand centre. Dyck predicts there will be a rise in jail populations, more pressure on community-based programs and more desperate addicts if the Winnipeg drug-treatment court doesn't continue in the future. = Photo Store

The future of Winnipeg's drug treatment court is in jeopardy due to a lack of stable funding and friction over which level of government should control the long-running program, the Free Press has learned.

As of May 1, the drug court stopped accepting new applications from offenders because there's no guarantee its annual funding will be there as of April 1, 2015, justice sources confirmed Monday.

The federal government is tired of funding the drug court without a commitment by the Manitoba government to take it over in the long term, sources said.

The drug court is in it's ninth year but still has pilot-project status.

The federal government provides about $500,000 a year to the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba to fund the program.

The province, the courts, Justice Canada and Legal Aid Manitoba provide in-kind services such as lawyers, probation officers and counsellors necessary for the drug court's work of supporting long-term rehabilitation of offenders.

Clients are carefully screened and they sign a waiver of their trial rights after being accepted into the program.

They're released on strict conditions to commit to a treatment plan, which includes drug-testing, counselling and frequent court appearances to keep the judge up to speed on their progress.

'The program may be stopping, but the addictions are not'

They also have access to community supports in an effort to end the cycle of crime prompted by their drug habits.

The recent decision to stop accepting new applicants was made when it became clear clients' prospects of graduating were in doubt, sources said.

Justice officials and defence lawyers are anxious about the situation.

They suggest losing the drug court may lead to massive spikes in jail and other justice costs and put additional pressure on the system.

Offenders whose crimes are fuelled by addictions will end up in the regular court system.

Because of that, there's no alternative for them but to be exposed to mandatory minimum jail terms recently brought in by the federal government for certain drug crimes.

"The program may be stopping, but the addictions are not," said one justice source familiar with the drug court's workings but who isn't authorized to speak publicly.

Defence lawyer Michael Dyck agreed incarceration rates and costs would rise with the drug court's demise.

"There's going to be more people in custody on remand status, more in custody serving sentences," Dyck said.

It costs about $117,000 a year to incarcerate a federal offender, Statistics Canada data show.

If the 70 people who have graduated from the drug court since January 2006 had instead been put behind bars for a year, the cost skyrockets -- at minimum -- to more than $8 million.

That figure far outstrips the total of annual funding provided for the drug court.

As well, many prospective drug-court offenders would likely receive sentences longer than a year.

That's not counting the fact the program's recidivism rate is only about 16 per cent, sources said, meaning spinoff savings from the drug court help reduce justice costs over the long term.

"This compares favourably to Manitoba reoffence rates for offenders on probation (28 per cent), conditional sentences (32 per cent) or assigned provincial custody (66 per cent)," University of Winnipeg researchers found in conducting an evaluation of the drug court for 2012-2013.

The research also found recidivism was lower even among those who did not graduate from the drug court.

Dyck said there are other drawbacks to consider if the drug court ends.

One, he said, would be additional pressure placed on existing community-based resources for addicts.

Waiting lists would grow based on additional need, as would the number of people waiting in custody for treatment, Dyck said.

Public safety would be at risk because addicts would have access to one less resource.

"For the most part, addicts are passive and looking for quick money," said Dyck.

"As they get desperate, they start taking more risks, and they start resorting to more violent offending -- and that's where public safety comes in," he said.

"Discussions between officials at the Manitoba Department of Justice and Justice Canada on this issue are ongoing," federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay's office said when approached for comment.

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 6, 2014 A3

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