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Steven's success in Tasmania's criminal drug rehabilitation court

This is part one of a two-part series.

In part two of Small Gains Court to be published Monday, reporter Sandy Powell explores the rehabilitation of the therapeutic court, and how its outcomes compare to prison sentences.

Between trips across Tasmania's North-West Coast to build a mowing company, Steven sat down in Burnie to discuss his life of drug addiction. Picture: Sandy Powell

Between trips across Tasmania's North-West Coast to build a mowing company, Steven sat down in Burnie to discuss his life of drug addiction. Picture: Sandy Powell

Steven has an affinity for numbers.

Off the top of his head, he knows exactly how much it will cost to take his kids caravanning for a week.

The fuel, the food and the campsites will run him $390, and that's not accounting for any unexpected spending.

He also knows exactly how much he is spending a week on cigarettes, the one habit he cannot kick, because that is money he will not have to spend on the caravanning trip.

He thinks now about his finances and his time to the number because he spent most of his life addicted to drugs which took too much of both.

"It was a long period of my life," he said.

"I was started when I was 12 and I'm now 43, so it was a long period of my life."

For privacy reasons his real name will not be included in this article.

Facing jail time 

Steven is now able to talk about his addiction as being in the past because he spent 2020 involved in Tasmania's court mandated drug diversion program.

The program is a sentencing option for low level criminal offenders who can prove, or whose lawyers can prove to the court that their crimes were directly linked to their addiction.

Magistrate Tamara Jago runs the program in the North-West at the Devonport and Burnie Magisterial Courts.

Magistrate Tamara Jago

Magistrate Tamara Jago

She says that participants are sentenced to a period of time in jail, but are able to remain freely in the community while navigating the rigorous and challenging demands of rehabilitation.

If they fail, if they relapse, if they continue to commit crimes, Magistrate Jago will send them to jail.

"You've got to be giving this program your all if you want to stay on this program. And if you don't you will be going to jail," she said.

After pleading guilty to drug possession charges, Steven was sentenced into the program at the start of 2020.

As a single parent to three children, he said going to prison for six months was just not an option.

"That was the biggest push behind everything to get me through the program. My kids, they're my life now."

Participants typically have two years to work through the program, but Steven completed it in just 12 months.

On day of his graduation from the program, Magistrate Jago's pride was genuine.

"Today's a very special day. I reviewed your file before coming into court today. And it's exemplary," she said.

"Since you came onto this program you have just been extraordinary in terms of your commitment, in terms of your willingness to do the hard work, in terms of your ability to say no to temptation.

"And to have a mindset that you wanted to turn your life around and achieve things for you and your family."

A therapeutic approach 

The program is intensive and requires participants to be available to the Community Corrections team, or to the court, with little notice.

With a possible jail stint hanging over their heads, participants must appear fortnightly in court for reviews, while also attending at the CMD offices weekly, or more.

There they can access counselling, but are also required to go through specialised addiction programs and, at random times throughout the week, submit to urinalysis testing.

Anna Winter is the North-West team leader for the CMD program, which is run through Community Corrections. Picture: Brodie Weeding

Anna Winter is the North-West team leader for the CMD program, which is run through Community Corrections. Picture: Brodie Weeding

"So they just get a phone call first up in the morning to say you're in for a drug test in 45 minutes... and they have to do those often three, four times a week," Ms Jago said.

If they fail any of those tests, they accrue a sanction day, and if they accrue 14 sanction days, they go and serve that time in custody.

The fortnightly court appearances, which typically occur in the Devonport Magistrates Court on Thursdays, include police prosecutors alongside the magistrate, CMD staff, the participant and, if they have one, their defence lawyer.

"There's a deliberate forming of a professional therapeutic relationship between the magistrate and the participant," said CMD team leader Anna Winter.

"It takes a little while for the participant to come around to that because they are not used to either speaking to the magistrate directly or speaking so openly and honestly about their drug use.

"It's not about trying to win against the other person. It's about doing what's right, what's going to be right for the participant."

Steven said that during the program he saw the other parties in the court as peers.

"Judge Tamara Jago I have actually had a lot of dealings with over my life. I had a very violent history, quite a lot of assault charges.

"I have a lot of respect for her. She's a straight shooter and I like straight shooters.

"But when I found out she was the judge [for CMD] I was like 'oh, s---, this could go one of two ways here'."

He said it took him a couple months to prove himself to Ms Jago and the court, but once he had "earned her respect", he was able to maintain it throughout the program to his graduation.

In the courtroom, that respect in concert with the therapeutic approach manifests as enthusiasm, encouragement and positive affirmation.

Everyone's a winner 

Ms Jago said that as drug addiction is an illness, "a really, really complicated illness", you have to celebrate what she called the small gains in order to encourage participants along the path to rehabilitation.

"You have to all always bear in mind that what we're actually trying to do... we're trying to improve their life."

Defence lawyer Kirsten Abercromby, who works for Tasmania's Legal Aid Commission in Devonport, said participants in the program do well to be congratulated on their small gains.

Devonport Legal Aid lawyer Kirsten Abercromby. Picture: Simon Sturzaker

Devonport Legal Aid lawyer Kirsten Abercromby. Picture: Simon Sturzaker

"Often they haven't had a lot to be praised about in the past. So a verbal reward, and congratulations from a magistrate, can really help their self esteem which is often in tatters," Ms Abercromby said.

"They often live a life of abject misery, as you would expect from someone that is addicted to an illicit substance.

"The ones that graduate from the program invariably go on to lead, what must be for them, much nicer lives.

"Their wins are everyone's wins. The winner really is the community."

During Steven's graduation, Ms Jago noted that due to his drive and determination, he had been able to achieve things which would not have happened if he had been in jail.

Now, a few months down the track, Steven is building a small mowing business on the North-West Coast and trying to raise three children.

"We still struggle," he admitted.

"I'm not working yet because my youngest is ADHD and my second youngest is autistic. And my eldest daughter is just 16 but she thinks she's 21.

"But you get that is life, you roll with the ripples. We get there, we do quite well."

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This story Small Gains Court: how a single dad took control of a 30-year drug addiction first appeared on The Advocate.