By Delon Shurtz - Lethbridge Herald on December 31, 2021.
Walk into any courtroom in Lethbridge, or anywhere else for that matter, and everyone – lawyers, clerks, the judge – is dressed in their best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and conducting themselves with dignity and decorum.
Clerks adorned in typical black gowns work efficiently and professionally as they go through their files, and the judge, who sits just a little higher than everyone else at the front of the courtroom, directs proceedings with an unmistakable air of authority.
A court of law doesn’t have to be overly somber – there may occasionally even be a little laughter – but it’s a serious place in which serious matters are conducted and people’s lives impacted.
Then there’s the drug treatment court which, in Lethbridge, is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month.
It’s also a serious place, and the last place anyone would expect to hear cheering and clapping, but it happens. Occasionally it’s even encouraged.
Proceedings in the Lethbridge drug treatment court are a little more laid back than regular court. When someone who has suffered with a drug addiction for most of his or her life, then overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to beat that addiction, that’s something to cheer and clap about.
And that’s what the drug court is all about.
“I think it’s absolutely terrific,” says Brett Carlson, a Legal Aid Alberta duty counsel lawyer who represents participants in the Lethbridge drug treatment court.
Carlson is sold on the drug treatment court. He says the court is helping drug addicts overcome their addictions and break the cycle of criminality, and that’s not only good for the addict, but society, as well.
Chelsey De Groot, program manager for the Lethbridge drug treatment court, agrees, and says, “I feel like it’s giving people a second chance to really change their lives.”
It’s far from an easy process, however, and while successful participants will not have to go to jail for their drug-related offences, neither is it a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” De Groot points out. In fact, for many it might be easier to simply plead guilty to their charges and spend time in custody. But that’s not addressing their addictions or breaking the vicious cycle of criminality.
The drug treatment court program – there are also courts in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Grande Prairie – is rigorous. Before being accepted, applicants must attend court sessions so they can make an informed choice about applying to the program. The application is submitted to the Crown’s office and screened for eligibility, then passed on to a police liaison, then on to De Groot’s team for a motivational assessment.
The program accepts people whose non-violent criminal acts are intertwined with addiction, and who are facing at least one year in jail. Participants plead guilty to their charges and work through the program for up to two years.
Participants are bound to an exhaustive list of rules, from frequent drug testing and curfew checks to reporting to probation officers, completing community service volunteer work, and attending detoxification and addictions treatment. Failing to follow rules can result in short stays in jail, as a wake-up call, and participants can be removed from the program and sent back to regular court.
“It’s much harder than going to jail,” Carlson says. “You have to fundamentally change yourself.”
Drug addicts may even have to exclude family and friends from their lives, which can be extremely difficult, but necessary, especially if their friends and members of their family are also drug users.
De Groot says applicants must be committed to overcoming their addictions if they want to complete the five-phase program, and after they complete the program they will be placed on probation, but they won’t have to go to jail.
The judge is also actively involved in the process and regularly checks on participants’ progress, encourages them and ensures they are complying with the rules. If they are, they may be rewarded in court with extended curfew or even gift cards. And there’s always clapping in celebration of successes. But there are also consequences if they aren’t complying, and they may be reprimanded or have their bail revoked.
No one has dropped out of the Lethbridge program since it began a year ago. And although the Lethbridge drug treatment court hasn’t existed long enough to have graduates yet, one participant in particular has already shown his commitment to changing his life while he works through his addiction. He has set goals for himself, has a job, and wants to be a mentor to others who also struggle with drug addiction.
“It’s really awesome to watch them change,” De Groot says.
Alberta’s drug treatment court programs have a high record of success. As of 2018, more than 70 per cent of graduates from the Edmonton and Calgary programs – which have been operating since 2005 and 2007 respectively – have made radical changes to their lives and have not had any new criminal convictions since completing their programs. And even though it’s been less than a year since Medicine Hat’s drug treatment court began operating, clients have already made remarkable changes.
“You see families starting to come together again,” duty counsel lawyer Bradley Bellmore says in a Legal Aid Alberta news release. “People are seeing their kids; they’re starting to parent again.”
Bellmore says drug addictions in Medicine Hat are epidemic, and it’s not unusual to see names in the obituaries of former clients, all of whom had addictions. Stephen Jenuth, a duty counsel lawyer working in Calgary’s drug treatment court, says some clients are 40 years old and have never had a job, and yet they are making big changes in their lives.
“We take people who have been committing crime daily for years and we get them to a point where they are contributing members of society,” Jenuth says. “That is the sort of change we’ve seen in people’s lives.”
And it’s never too late.
“The moral to the story of drug treatment court is that it’s never too late for redemption,” Carlson says. “It’s never too late to make transformative changes in your life. All it takes is an opportunity.”
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