Inside Australia’s Second-Chance Drug Courts

We hear so often about the drug problem fuelling crime and tearing families apart, but what we don’t hear about is why.

After a year-long consultation process, A Current Affair was given exclusive access behind the scenes in one of Australia’s drug courts, where hardcore addicts plead their case and try to stay out of jail.

The drug court program is seen as a last resort for addicts who would otherwise be doing hard time.

Magistrate Tony Parsons, who presides over a Victorian drug court, said he had seen "lives change".

Non-violent offenders are given an opportunity to prove they can turn their lives and addictions around by serving their time “on the outside” and attending intensive drug court-imposed programs.

We spent a full day sitting in on hearings and learning why Magistrate Tony Parsons will jail one participant, and why he might applaud another. And the applause you hear in Magistrate Parsons’ courtroom is a huge part of the process. Magistrate Parsons believes strongly in building relationships and respect with participants so in turn they have the confidence and the motivation to succeed.

Robert Leibermann is a former heroin addict who is part of he drug court program. He spoke very candidly with us about how serious his drug problem was for decades.

“Heroin, ice, marijuana, you name it I was pretty much doing it all,” he said.

He has been on the program for around five months and is doing very well.

In order to curb his heroin addiction he has to pick up the drug Saboxone from the pharmacy every day.

He has also had to do bi-weekly drug testing, counselling sessions and attend appointments with Corrections Officers on top of fronting the Magistrate once a week. So far he is doing extremely well.

We sat in on the meeting representatives from government departments like Victoria Police and Legal Aid Victoria have with Magistrate Parsons before every court day to hear how and why they might punish a participant or reward another.

Magistrate Tony Parsons conducts hearings to determine whether one applicant will be jailed and one will be admitted.

A lot of the success of a participant comes down to honesty. If a participant takes drugs and tries to lie about it and then gets caught on a drug test the magistrate will come down hard.

They might have a day added to their “sanction bank”. A “sanction bank” will accumulate days and once it reaches six, a participant will be sent to jail.

For lesser offences they might be ordered to do homework on drug-related study. A reward for good behaviour might come in the form of a movie voucher or a day being dropped from a persons “sanction bank”.

Darren Gunther spoke to us from his home in Melbourne where he lives with his daughter. Just a couple of years ago he was heavily addicted to ice and living in his car. He was about to be sent to jail when the drug court stepped in and offered him another chance.

Drug court programs have a 40 percent success rate.

“Its serving your time on the outside,” he said.

“As such … it ends up taking all of your week and it becomes a full-time job.”

Darren didn’t adhere to the court rules straight away though, he was a troublesome candidate.

“It wasn’t till about seven months into the order that i pulled my head in,” he said.

Approval and applause is a part of the Drug Court process.

Magistrate Parsons said Darren’s journey had been “extraordinary.

“It was one of those cases that you look at and think, this person just isn’t going to make it,” he said.

“Darren came to us homeless, he had a significant addiction to methamphetamine and GHB which is often a lethal cocktail.”

But Darren did make it through, and we ended up filming with him in his workplace where his old boss gave him back his job and he’s now in demand six days a week.

The need for employers willing to take on drug court participants is something the program wanted to highlight too.

While participants might have criminal histories, once they have completed the two-year program they will have been through intensive drug screening and self development, something a employer could consider an asset for a job candidate looking to get back into the work force.

Not everyone succeeds in the program though. We were there as some participants came out of drug court-ordered jail time and another was sent back in. Hardcore addiction is extremely hard to shake.

The program is having a 40 percent success rate and saving the prison system 14,000 beds a year. It saves the corrections system $3.8 million every year.

Having just opened the second drug court in Victoria, Magistrate Parsons is extremely passionate about it.

“I’ve seen lives change, I’ve seen people who you would think are going to spend the rest of their years in jail, all of a sudden turn a corner, start to give clean urine screens and six months later find a job,” he said.

“And then their children are returned from the department and they go off to lead happy constructive lives.”