Red Deer’s newly opened drug treatment court will offer those facing lengthy sentences a chance to rebuild their lives.
The courts dedicated to offering an alternative to prison for those battling drug addictions have been successfully operating in Edmonton since 2005 and in Calgary since 2007.
In fall 2020, they were introduced in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat and Red Deer and Grande Prairie have just recently followed suit.
Red Deer duty counsel Murray Shack has helped guide people through the justice system for 13 years and fully supports what drug courts aim to achieve.
“I think it’s simply a wonderful program,” said Shack, who works for Legal Aid Alberta. “We’ve been wanting to get drug court in Red Deer and elsewhere for years because we see the benefit.
“It’s not for everyone. But it certainly has the ability to transform lives and the change the course of a person’s life like no other program.”
The goal of drug courts is to break the cycle of criminal behaviour driven by addiction. Those addicted to drugs who are facing sentences of one to five years for crimes, such as trafficking, theft and break and enter are eligible. It is not an option for those who are facing charges involving serious violence or have a history of violence.
To get into the program, the accused must sit in on court sessions before deciding whether to apply. Then, they must plead guilty and agree to have their sentencing delayed while they undertake intensive and rigorously monitored treatment programs with regular drug testing, curfew checks and frequent meetings with probation officers and other supervisors.
Those in the program must show they have been drug-free for a minimum of six months, including the three months before graduation. Should the applicant quit or be terminated because of non-compliance they will go back into the court system to have their charges dealt with in the usual way.
Those who successfully complete the program may still face punishment for their crimes, but it will not include jail time.
Shack said the program requires a great deal of commitment.
“The person has to want to go into drug treatment court, it’s voluntary. And the person has to be prepared to do a lot of work. It’s usually 18 months to two years. It’s a lot more onerous than just going through regular court.
“They have meetings, regular court appearances, drug testing, they have to go for treatment with a treatment team. It’s really rebuilding their life.”
Despite the high expectations placed on program participants, its success has been considerable.
“The percentage of people that make it through is actually quite high, considering that they have their share of struggles,” he said.
Seven out of 10 graduates from the Calgary and Edmonton drug courts have no further charges or convictions.
Medicine Hat duty counsel Bradley Bellmore said he has seen remarkable changes in clients who gone through the program.
“You see families starting to come together again. People are seeing their kids. They’re starting to parent again,” said Bellmore, in a statement provided by Legal Aid Alberta.
Red Deer’s drug treatment court will take place on Mondays. Applications have been received, but none approved yet.
A team has been pulled together to support the court, which is being co-ordinated by the John Howard Society. Dedicated judges, federal and provincial Crown prosecutors, legal aid lawyers, RCMP and probation officers and other social agency staff work together.