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Drug courts grappling with cuts

Services at risk as funding spread across the country
|Written By Neil Etienne

Ontario’s drug treatment courts are facing a financial crunch with federal funding changes meaning significant cuts to their budgets.

‘For people with substance abuse issues, there’s nothing else that compares in the justice system,’ says Kristin Bailey. Photo: Robin Kuniski

For the financial year starting in April 2015, the federal government downloaded administration of the funding to the provinces, allowing places without drug treatment courts, such as Prince Edward Island and the territories, to start them up. Overall annual funding of approximately $3.6 million for each of the past 10 years remains the same across Canada in 2015. But with more services popping up nationally, each of the existing drug treatment courts now gets a smaller portion of the money. The Department of Justice didn’t respond to questions from Law Times about the changes by press time (see update below).

Robin Cuff, manager of Toronto’s drug treatment court, says that for 10 years, her operation has been receiving $750,000 annually from the federal government to run its services. In April of this year, when the government downloaded administration of the funds to the province, the Toronto court’s annual funding fell to $600,000. While community partnerships and the use of volunteers provide additional support, Cuff worries the funding cut will hamper the court’s effectiveness.

The situation is similar in Ottawa, where drug treatment court manager Ruth Mayhew says the traditional annual funding of $550,000 has fallen by $150,000 to $400,000.

For Cuff, the changes will have a significant impact on the court’s services. “From our point of view, we have stretched our community partnerships as much as possible; we cannot see ourselves operating the way we have been with this drastic change in resources,” she says.

“The funding reduction came in April, so we’re still trying to figure out exactly what this [reduction] will mean for the future, but we can say it means we will likely have to reduce the number of clients we serve.”

She adds that with a previous decade-long funding freeze, the court had already had to cut staff by about 25 per cent even as “the demands have increased exponentially.”

“We’ve created efficiencies wherever we can; we’ve formed partnerships but we’re left now at the point where we can’t cut anymore without affecting how many clients we can help,” says Cuff, noting the situation is similar for the country’s five other main drug treatment courts. Cuff says that at any given time, about 60 people are in the Toronto program and demands for spaces far exceed that.

Drug treatment courts first arrived in Canada in Toronto in late 1998 based on a model used in the United States. At the time, justice Paul Bentley had noticed the same offenders were repeatedly appearing in front of him and wanted to research an alternative way to deal with their underlying addiction issues as a way to break the cycle. Vancouver followed suit with a court in 2001, followed by Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Regina in 2005. Other communities in Ontario, such as Hamilton, Ont., also have drug treatment courts that don’t receive federal funding.

The courts offer an alternative to the traditional court system for non-violent offenders who often are dealing with drug addiction, mental-health, and poverty issues. Offenders must apply and take part in the program for a minimum of 12 months up to about 18 months and must otherwise be facing a non-violent drug-related offence, such as possession, or crimes motivated by their addiction, such as prostitution.

Part of the acceptance into the program is to plead guilty and then embark on an intense schedule of weekly court appearances, individual and group counselling, drug testing, addiction treatment, and various health programs.

Ontario Court Justice Mary Hogan, who has been part of the Toronto drug treatment court in some capacity almost since its inception, says the courts combine health and justice services in order to help offenders with their issues rather than just dealing with a charge and sending them to jail.

Hogan says the clients are often repeat offenders caught in a “revolving door” fuelled by drug addiction and notes that drug treatment courts offer a way to break the cycle. She says recent changes to funding for the system are leaving many people without the assistance they need.

“The only appropriate manner to deal with these clients, when the root of their problem lies in addiction, is to deal with that addiction, not send them to jail where they may not get any help they need,” says Hogan.

“It’s about looking at all the supports they need and so much of it is helping with finding dignity.

Addiction is a health issue; it is not a criminal justice issue, so we need these courts who work closely with those in the health system, and I feel like we’re doing something that is really addressing the problem.”

Besides helping clients deal with their addictions, the courts provide social support, such as employment skills and help to find housing. “It’s top-quality counselling; it’s about looking at all the supports they need to break the cycle,” says Hogan.

“Many of our clients have none of the supports most us have: family, proper employment, even housing.

Putting these people through traditional court, you see the futility of it and see the revolving door where they serve their time and go right back [to their addictions].”

Criminal lawyer and Hicks Adams LLP associate Kristin Bailey calls the drug treatment court system “a fantastic alternative.”

“For people with substance abuse issues, there’s nothing else that compares in the justice system,” she says.

“The alternative is jail, and you’ll only see the revolving door of drug offences; as a society we’re otherwise warehousing them in jail and not helping them. They will likely repeat without dealing with the cause of their addictions. I don’t understand why anyone would cut funding. You’re actually saving money and you’re helping people, so it’s ideal.”

According to Cuff, the costs of jailing people can be up to $52,000 per year, a number that compares to about $5,000 for someone to successfully complete the drug treatment court program. “If this trend continues, we are going to see more people stuck in that revolving door and more people going to jail,” says Cuff. “It is a health-care issue and they simply won’t have access to the help they need.”

Hogan notes that in talking to her peers in the drug treatment court system across the country, all are feeling the same financial pinch. “It has to be properly and adequately funded to be successful,” she says.

“So now, not only has the budget not been increased for 10 years, it’s now been cut. We have excellent people doing an excellent job, but that is getting harder to do. At the end of the day, it’s also cost effective. The money you spend up front drastically saves resources down the line.”

[em]Update Sept. 21: After press deadline, Department of Justice spokesman Ian McLeod provided a response: "As of April 1, 2015, Justice Canada has entered into or is negotiating contribution agreements with 11 provinces and territories with regard to drug treatment courts. A three-year agreement has been signed with the Ministry of Attorney General of Ontario at an annual funding amount of $1 million. It is within MAG’s discretion to determine how to allocate this funding between the drug treatment courts in Toronto, Ottawa, and elsewhere in Ontario."


He added: "Program evaluations concluded that [drug treatment court] funding is more efficient when provided directly to provincial and territorial ministries and that this approach allows for better collaborative opportunities."

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