By Trishan Craig
Guyana yesterday opened the doors of its first ever Drug Treatment Court (DTC), an achievement that will certainly go down in the annals of history.
The opening of the court, which was compared to the birth of a child, was established to combat the growing issue of drug users and criminal offences related to the abuse of drugs.
The event was held at the Georgetown Magistrates’ Court and was attended by the Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Hon. Basil Williams; Vice President and Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan; Judges of the Appeal and Supreme Courts and Magistrates from around Guyana. Other outstanding guests were also in attendance.
The DTC came into existence as a result of hard work and determination of the members of the Supreme Court of Judicature of Guyana, the Organisation of American States Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (OAS-CICAD) and the National Anti-Narcotics of Agency of Guyana.
Hon. Madame Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards, Chancellor of the Judiciary, in her feature address to the gathering indicated that the court which is now housed in the once Court 7 courtroom, along with another room of the Georgetown Magistrates’ Court, was refurbished for just under $1M.
According to the Supreme Court of Judicature of Guyana, a Drug Treatment Court is a specialised court for persons with substance use disorders such as drug addiction.
It is a problem solving court that seeks to address the needs of each participant in the court programme, including their drug use and the criminal behaviour associated with it.
Rather than imprisoning persons with drug offences, this court gives them the opportunity to enter long-term treatment and agree to court supervision.
How a Drug Treatment Court operates
Hon. Madame Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards stated that a total of five magistrates were trained to operate in the DTC. With help from the OAS-CICAD and the United States (US) the magistrates received their trainings.
The intensive training was done in the US by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. All of the other magistrates are listed for the training also.
Sharing knowledge about the court, the Supreme Court of Judicature of Guyana had highlighted that to be eligible for Drug Treatment Court, a person must be an adult who has been charged with a minor criminal, drug, or related offence, must be likely to re-offend, and must be experiencing serious substance use disorder.
On a plea of guilty or being found guilty by a magistrate for certain specified offences, the offender is provided with an option of a custodial sentence or to enter a treatment programme as an alternative to incarceration.
Participation in the programme is voluntary. Hon. Madame Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards said that some of the offences that will be a part of the programme will be outlined in a policy which will be circulated.
The programmes are basically to prescribe treatment which is tailored to the needs of the participant. Some of the key interventions of the DTC are educational sessions, one-to-one counselling, group counselling, drug testing, treatment recovery plan, reintegration post-graduation plans.
In Guyana, we have the Phoenix Recovery Center, the Salvation Army and other such organizations that are well equipped to provide the recovery plans.
The Supreme Court will work with its stakeholders to ensure the success of the DTC.
The DTC team comprises of largely magistrates, state councils from the office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), the defence attorney or legal aid attorney who will represent the offender, a probation officer; a representative of the approved substance abuse providers, a case manager and such other persons as the court may direct.
The team is tasked with conducting the initial assessment of eligible participation and to provide updated information to the court regarding the participant. Once a participant signs a written agreement to participate, which will be fully explained to him/her they’re required to comply with same.
Moreover, if a participant fails to complete the programme, his or her case will be processed in the traditional criminal justice system.
The Supreme Court of Judicature of Guyana had stressed that the Drug Treatment Court programme requires a lot of commitment from participants and dedicated case supervision from the drug treatment court team.
This may require participation for many months to help the person maintain long-term recovery strategies.
Furthermore, there will be frequent and random drug tests so as to ensure that persons stay clean. Participants must attend court frequently so they can be monitored and encouraged to make and maintain their recovery.
The programme is designed to give structure to participants’ lives and to support their recovery. It was noted that participants are not alone in their steps to recovery from their drug addiction.
Members of the court help participants in their progress towards recovery and hold them accountable for lapses in improvement.
In addition, participants who successfully complete the Drug Treatment Court programme may receive a light sentence such as a fine or community service, or have their underlying criminal charge dismissed or have no conviction recorded.
Upon successful completion of the programme, there is a graduation ceremony by which time the participants will be rehabilitated and prepared for reintegration into their community where they can meaningfully contribute to society.
Unlike traditional courts, Drug Treatment Courts take a collaborative approach to justice. The Magistrate, Prosecutor, Defense Attorney, Social Worker, Police Officer, Treatment Provider and Mental Health specialists work together with each participant to seek solutions for his or her benefit.
What a Drug Treatment Court means for the prison system
Speaking with this publication in a side interview, the Director of Prisons, Gladwin Samuels, expressed his gratitude in having the DTC established.
He said “I think the drug treatment court is a step in the right direction. While I do not foresee the prison immediately benefiting from a reduction, over time the implication or the use of the court will result in a reduction in terms of persons who are sent to the prison.”
Director Samuels added that he is of the opinion that with a strong sense of guidance for persons in the right direction which will eventually lead to a reduction in dependency of drugs, it will result in stronger families.”
Furthermore, he indicated that beneficiaries of the DTC programmes will be better equipped to go back and contribute to their families and at the same time, be reintegrated into society, which is a plus.
In his September speech for the 36 years of service provided by the Prison Officers to Guyana, Samuels had highlighted that the prisons have a population of 1,917.
Of that amount 371 or 19 percent of the prisoners are between the ages of 18 and 30, while 62 or 17 percent of these individuals are imprisoned for drug-related cases.
Guyana will now join the paths taken previously by other Caribbean countries like Jamaica, The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados with the establishment of its Drug Treatment Court.
The Caribbean countries have been effective in getting people into treatment and assisting them in remaining clean.
Further mention was made of the fact that participants who complete Drug Treatment Court programmes are significantly less likely to be arrested again, compared to those who are sentenced with traditional punishments.
Drug Treatment Courts reduce the number of persons being imprisoned thereby being more cost effective. It enhances public safety by reducing crime, and most importantly, restores dignity to individuals and their families. It also benefits communities and society as a whole.
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