IT is the Hunter's best kept criminal justice secret, the court of constant surprises, of last chances and the only jurisdiction where no one in the room - even the prosecutor and the judge - wants you to go to jail, provided you follow all the rules.
And there are plenty of rules. It's often referred to by those lucky enough to get a spot as a "get out of jail free card", until they hear about all of the conditions.
The Hunter Drug Court at Toronto is celebrating its tenth anniversary this month, a decade of making a difference in the fight being waged - individually and across the region - against the scourge of drug addiction. But how do you quantify or articulate the impact the Drug Court has had on the Hunter over the past decade?
Judge Paul Cloran takes a deep breath and pauses for a moment when asked to reflect on the last 10 years.
"This is a process about individuals," Judge Cloran says. "These people have been broken or damaged individually and they've got to be fixed individually. What I can say, and it is supported by BOCSAR [Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research] is that the results are remarkable. There are hundreds of people who are now not committing offences, who were drug-dependent and are now not. They don't need to resort to crime to support their drug-dependence and many are working, contributing to the community."
The knock-on effect of that is exponential; less people who are the victim of crime and less strain on the police and justice system.
More people in the workforce, contributing to society, giving not taking.
And more people with better relationships with their families and their children, less kids following in their parents' footsteps, turning to drugs and crime, a gap in the generational cycle of drug-dependence.
The Drug Court is a unique program that takes an innovative, therapeutic approach to dealing with drug-related offenders and has been found to be more effective and less expensive than jail.
Potential participants are referred from the Hunter's criminal courts and go into a ballot. But the Drug Court deals not with those just dipping their toes into the criminal justice system and in order to be accepted participants need to be drug-dependent and looking down the barrel of a jail term.
Once they're in they receive a jail term, but that "initial sentence" is suspended while they undertake a comprehensive treatment and case management plan.
"And this is where we get all the power," Judge Cloran says. "It is very much a carrot and the stick kind of thing."
They undergo regular drug testing, supervision, home visits, meet with Justice Health and Community Corrections and come back to the Drug Court weekly so Judge Cloran can check in on their progress.
If they mess up it can mean a short, sharp period in custody to "reset things". If they abscond then a warrant is issued and they are taken to jail, a unique opportunity missed. Since 2011, the Hunter Drug Court has helped 660 drug-addicted offenders to address the causes of their criminal behaviour, according to Department of Communities and Justice data. On average between 55 and 60 people complete the program each year and last year 68 per cent of the participants were not returned to custody at the end of the program.
Research into the long-term effect of the Drug Court on recidivism conducted last year by BOCSAR found participants had a 17 per cent lower re-offending rate than those not placed in the program. Participants in the Drug Court program also took 22 per cent longer to commit an offence.
Tony* spent 16 years addicted to methamphetamine and turned to crime to support his habit before he hit rock bottom and was looking at a lengthy jail term.
He admits when first accepted to the Drug Court he wasn't ready to give up using and saw the program as a way to stay out of jail.
But at some point his mindset changed.
"Because of the life that I was engaged in, I didn't feel like there was genuine people that wanted to help me," Tony says. "Or in my own mind I didn't need help, I just didn't want to be in jail. But the program made me become honest with myself. I had to do three urine tests a week and face the magistrate once a week and it made me 100 per cent accountable for my actions. I wasn't going back to the life of crime. As I progressed, my trust in the program and the people grew. It was very tough to start with because all I had known for the previous 16 years was using ice and committing crime. I didn't realise... I thought I would die an ice addict. That was the blunt truth. I didn't think there was a life out there that I was worthy of living."
Now, Tony has two years of sobriety up, a full-time job with responsibilities, a healthy social life, normal hobbies, a role with Narcotics Anonymous, a relationship with his children and is getting married next year.
"You know without the Drug Court I would probably be dead by now," Tony says. "That is the truth. That is where my years of using had gotten me; I didn't care if I lived or died. I felt like I was pretty worthless. But once I entered that program my mindset started changing and if I can do it anyone can do it." Judge Cloran said the Drug Court program would be nothing without the dedicated team of stakeholders.
"When you think past that the real heroes of the whole thing are the people who do well on the program," he says. "It takes so much courage to address those issues, issues that some have had for 30 or 40 years. And they just stop using."
Judge Cloran recalls a participant who got in trouble while on the program when he was caught in a stolen car.
"He said: "If by some miracle the judge lets me continue on the program, I'm never going to use again"," Judge Cloran said. "And he didn't. It was just one of those things where he needed just one more chance. "He graduated a month ago. There are some really, really inspiring stories. And that is what keeps us, the rest of the team, so committed because we see people just turning their lives around."
- Not his real name
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