Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ottawa's role in drug court is critical

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It would be hard to label drug-treatment courts a roaring success. A fraction of the offenders -- one-third in Manitoba; 14 per cent in a Vancouver program -- with serious addictions diverted from regular courts to the community-based model that aims to get them out of drugs and crime actually stick with the program. Yet the results are impressive, far better than for those sentenced to probation or to jail. For that reason, Manitoba's drug-treatment court deserves continued funding.

The federal government, having substantially carried the program costs since 2006, is looking for the Manitoba government to pitch in after 2015, beyond the costs of court and correction services that are involved. The drug-treatment program, operated by the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, cannot be legitimately described as a pilot project; eight years of operations allows good evidence to be collected on its value. The rate of reoffending is lower, particularly when those who complete the program are compared with similar offenders who are sent to jail.

The drug-treatment court, designed for those whose addictions drive them to crimes, typically see individuals involved with hard drugs, serious offences such as trafficking and are unemployed. The diversion program aims to get them out of their destructive environments into secure living arrangements and enrolled in school, skills training or into jobs. The money saved by the courts and corrections by keeping them out of jail and into productive pursuits is considerable. The payoff to society has not been calculated.

No one calls drug-treatment courts a magic bullet. The majority of Manitobans who have signed up are addicted to cocaine and have established criminal records. Those who complete are typically Caucasian and had jobs when they entered. Further, analyses of the effects of the programs is fairly truncated -- up to two years post-completion in Manitoba; six months in Vancouver. They advised more work go into finding participants housing away from high-crime, high-drug environments and Vancouver's saw need to lengthen the duration and intensity of the counselling for very high-risk offenders.

The relatively low number of those completing Manitoba's program, 70 over eight years, casts doubt on the claim of some that if it were to close, the costs to courts and corrections here would spike dramatically. This program now is part of a long-running dispute between the Selinger and Harper governments over a pattern of policy and program retrenchment in Ottawa that sees costs falling upon provincial shoulders.

Every government is focused on cutting deficits. The drug-treatment court, while not without its critics, has proven useful and holds potentially broader benefits that deserve investment. It cuts the costs of both provincial and federal direct spending. There is benefit to both levels of government to continue funding the program.

Launched as a federal government initiative, the Harper government cannot pull out wholesale. It should either commit through long-term funding arrangements or negotiate a cost-shared transfer agreement with the provincial government that allows for serious development of the drug-treatment court program to improve the demonstrated benefits of working intensively with a small, but significant number of offenders driven to serious crime by their addictions.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2014 A8

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