Red Deer provincial court Judge Jim Hunter has a rare viewpoint of the devastating toll addictions take on people’s lives.
Drugs and alcohol are involved in some way, in most of the cases that come before him. But until now, he said, the courts have had few ways to deal with those whose descent into the justice system is rooted in addiction.
A visit to Edmonton’s drug treatment court two years ago left a lasting impression on the judge.
On that day, a woman in her early 20s stood before a judge and learned she had passed the screening process and would enter the drug treatment court program.
“She broke down and started to cry. And the only words she could say, and repeated, were: ‘You saved my life.’
“I firmly believe drug treatment courts do just that for so many people.”
Hunter was one of those who stood on the steps of Red Deer City Hall to celebrate the news that the provincial government is funding a drug treatment court for Red Deer, expanding on successful efforts in Calgary and Edmonton.
Pamela Spurvey went through the drug court program in Edmonton 13 years ago, after being arrested on drug charges in Camrose, where she had gone to get away from Edmonton’s drug scene, but was introduced to crystal meth.
Drug treatment court was a life saver for her.
“It gave me the opportunity to be a mother and show society I was worth saving.”
Spurvey was able to get treatment for her addiction and to have her four children, who had been taken into care, restored to her.
Fifteen months after joining the program, she graduated, and the presiding judge hugged her.
“That was the most incredible moment of my life, being hugged by that judge,” she said.
After being clean for three years, she was hired by Edmonton’s drug treatment court, and has now been there for 10 years and become a life skills coach, among other pursuits.
“It gave me so much of my life back. I can’t thank Edmonton drug treatment court enough. And not only that, it’s changed my children’s lives.”
Grace Froese, who is overseeing the expansion of the province’s drug court system, worked in corrections and saw the same people return before the justice system again and again.
“I thought there has to be something better. There has to be something more.”
Six years ago, she got a position with Edmonton’s drug treatment court and it was a revelation.
“I got to see so many people’s lives change as a result of drug court,” she said. “It’s incredible.”
Froese said the drug treatment court program is based on honesty and accountability, and includes incentives, sanctions, community supports and regular drug testing to help people return to the life they want.
“Anyone who has graduated from a drug court program will tell you it’s the hardest thing they have ever had to do.”
Froese said she has seen so many people whose lives were seemingly “broken beyond repair,” recover and thrive, their families restored and healthy adults being returned to their children.
“This is possible because these individuals were given the support and the opportunity to become who they were meant to be.
“It’s through integrating addiction treatment services with justice system case processing that we can create safer communities and reduce rural crime.
“And I honestly believe this is the answer.”
More than 70 per cent of drug court graduates have not had new criminal convictions, she said.
“That’s so substantial. The money invested in drug courts today is creating substantial savings for the future.”