DRUGS, PROBATION AND COURT ORDERS
by Danny Kushlick.
Joe has missed another appointment with me. I have just called his probation officer to let him know and Joe will be returning to the court for breach of his probation order.
This does not sound like the caring, sharing drugs worker of days gone by. Is this the new school of enforced abstinence and the end of voluntarism in drugs work?
Joe is on a probation order with a 1A condition under the 1991 Criminal Justice Act (CJA) to seek treatment for his drug misuse. As the result of a scheme set up in March 1994 Joe and his court were given a new option for high tariff offenders. In 1994 Avon Probation Service funded a partnership scheme with Bristol Drugs Project (BDP) for offenders who were expected to receive a custodial sentence. Now they could opt for three months weekly counselling as part of their probation order. It is Hobson's choice, however, as individuals have to agree to attend the BDP and they can be deemed to have breached their probation order for non-attendance.
To date 45 clients have started on the programme and half have successfully completed the three months (the other half have breached). The vast majority of people referred to the project have committed acquisitive crime in order to support their habit. Most are young, male opiate users, shoplifting, burglary, cheque book fraud and the like.
Although the BDP always had close links with the criminal justice system, the move into a formal partnership with probation and the courts brought up a whole number of new practice issues and concerns.
This had always been sacrosanct. Now I would have to report on individual's attendance and potentially be slandered in local prisons as "the guy who stitched me up", and so change the clients' views negatively regarding the project.
In practice the protocol we set up means that clients are very clear what will happen if they are given a condition to attend the project. Probation, likewise, are clear what information they will receive. Most clients build up a level of trust such that they can talk, for instance about drug dealing, that they would never speak about with their probation officer. The fact that, although we are in partnership with the criminal justice system, we are one or two steps removed, often gives people the confidence to speak openly.
Would the fact that people were under a court order affect the nature of the relationship with the drug worker? The answer is yes, it does. Some, a minority, of people never really trust the confidentiality agreement, and I do not ever really get the full story. For others there is an element of resentment at having to attend and a constant fear of being breached. These added issues are obviously not present for voluntary users of the project.
Some have agreed to the condition purely to avoid a prison sentence and if they do attend subsequently, they are more interested in getting away than talking about themselves.
On the positive side for those people who are chaotic and who want help, the boundaries set by the court order can be extremely useful in providing a structure by which individuals feel supported. The bottom line is that anyone who decides, having been given the condition, that they don't want to come just stops coming. Individuals vote with their feet ultimately. Those who are breached and returned to court are, at worst, likely to receive the sentence they would have got if the scheme hadn't existed in the first place.
Although attendance may as the result of some coercion for many clients it is the first time they have been in contact with a drugs service. They at least know where to go for help should they feel they need it.
As a partnership worker I have a number of masters whom I serve: my client, probation, the court and BDP.
Success for one will not necessarily be important for another. Convincing someone to regularly use the needle exchange will not necessarily be a Crown Court judge's first priority. Probation and the courts want to know the underlying issues that lead people to offend are being addressed in a way that can be reported back successfully. The courts also want there to be consequences for non-co-operation. Probation also want protocol that enables them to liaise, at the very least, about clients' attendance. Clients want a confidential drugs service that provides everything from support to referral to other agencies. BDP want me first and foremost to provide a service to clients and secondly to develop the service.
In order to meet all these needs we have developed a monitoring system that takes into account drug use, offending, client evaluation and harm minimisation issues. The fact is that although some people will improve on all key performance indicators, some will continue to offend and continue to use drugs. (Indeed, some will continue to offend even if they stop using drugs having been offending before they started to use). Completion of the condition itself is a measure of success for some clients who have never completed a court order.
As a result of the partnership post being developed, liaison between the criminal justice system and BDP has improved greatly. There are many more opportunities for BDP to have a consultative role for probation and opportunities to educate magistrates through their meetings as to the nature of drug use and misuse and the type of people they are dealing with.
The Way Forward
Anecdotal evidence suggests that upwards of 70 per cent of probation clients are misusing drugs and a majority of them are offending because of their habit. This is a huge number of people and will require a multi-agency strategy and a large increase in resources to meet their needs.
Conditions of treatment have an important part to play as an option the court can use and that probation can offer to clients. Avon's experience is that they are immediately useful for about half of those who receive counselling as part of an order. Clients who would otherwise spend anything from three months to three years in prison can now opt for a community sentence during which they can address a number of different issues from a specialist service, which will be monitored by the court. It is, for those who are ready for a change, an opportunity that did not exist before 1994.
It will not, however, meet the needs of the vast majority of probation clients. Not until there is a recognition and strategic response to drug misuse in probation will things fundamentally shift. This also needs to include an analysis at a policy level of why so many people on probation misuse drugs.
Currently Avon Probation Service is working on a strategic response to drug and alcohol misuse amongst probation clients. There are now two partnership workers in the drugs field in Avon. We still cannot provide for anywhere near the needs of all drug using clients on probation. What is needed now is a strategic plan including training, consultation and support for probation officers, training and consultation for magistrates and judges, specialist probation workers and excellent links between probation and the statutory drugs team.
Court ordered drug treatment can work under conditions where probation and the courts support their partner. Just the same as in any other field some clients will get better, some worse and some remain the same. That said, the majority experience some benefit from the contact.
For people like Joe court ordered treatment has given him the opportunity in the community to stay away from a ram raiding œ1,000 a day crack habit and settle down with his girlfriend - as long as he turns up for the next appointment.
Danny Kushlick is a probation partner worker at BDP.
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