Drug courts need investment

Published: Thursday | December 12, 2013 Comments 0
Hundreds of people join hands while going up a hill to view the body of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa, yesterday. Mandela's body will lie in state at the Union Buildings for members of the public to view ahead of his burial. - AP
Hundreds of people join hands while going up a hill to view the body of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa, yesterday. Mandela's body will lie in state at the Union Buildings for members of the public to view ahead of his burial. - AP


In Jaevion Nelson’s column ‘Drug courts need investment’, it was a councillor who represented Mayor Angela Brown Burke, and not the mayor herself, who “pledged KSAC’s support and asked the justices to come and do an information session with them”. We apologise for any inconvenience the incorrect insertion may have caused.


By Jaevion Nelson

The support for persons who use drugs, especially those who commit offences under the influence, is often woefully inadequate and misguided. Far too many programmes label people as 'drug abusers' and focus on enforcing abstinence, despite its low efficacy in reducing the harm that people may experience/cause from using drugs.

Perhaps this is why drug use is such a serious problem in Jamaica - because programmes are not holistic. According to the National Council for Drug Abuse, alcohol, marijuana, and crack/cocaine are the most commonly used drugs. In 2005, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that young people 18-25 years account for the majority of illicit drug use in Jamaica, and among this cohort, up to 80 per cent were males. In particular, alcohol is the preferred drug for adolescents and young adults. The 2006 National School Survey found that 65.8 per cent of students have used alcohol in their lifetime and the age of first use is around 11. Cigarette, marijuana and inhalants (i.e., glue and volatile solvents) are used by 22.2%, 21.5% and 25.5% of students, respectively. In some instances, persons commit offences because of (and among other things) their drug dependency.

About three months ago, I learned that there are two drug courts in Jamaica to provide an alternative to incarceration for certain offences. "A drug court is a specialized or problem-solving court-based program that targets criminal offenders [...] who have alcohol and other drug addiction and dependency problems" (National Institute of Justice, retrieved September 2013). The programme of the drug court is usually managed by a multidisciplinary and non-adversarial team. The programme is comprehensive and involves: offender assessment, judicial interaction, monitoring (e.g., drug testing) and supervision, treatment services and graduated sanctions and incentives.

This programme is said to be very effective. The US National Institute of Justice (2007) in a study titled Impact of a Mature Drug Court Over 10 Years of Operation: Recidivism and Costs, said that compared to traditional criminal justice system processing, treatment and other investment costs averaged $1,392 lower per drug court participant. Reduced recidivism and other long-term programme outcomes resulted in public savings of $6,744 on average per participant (or $12,218 if victimisation costs are included). I was unfortunately unable to find data about the efficacy of our drug courts.

In Jamaica, the drug court (Treatment and Rehabilitation of Offenders) Act came into being in May 2001 "to provide for the establishment of a Drug Court [...] to facilitate the treatment and rehabilitation of persons who commit certain drug offences or other offences while under the influence of drugs, to provide for the supervision of such persons while undergoing treatment pursuant to a programme prescribed by the Drug Court and for connected matters" (Ministry of Justice).


Last week, I met Devon Thomas, a young man who was one of three persons who graduated from the Corporate Area Drug Court rehabilitation programme. He said he loved to smoke marijuana and be on the corner with his friends. He skipped school regularly as well. Devon was apprehended by the police for committing an offence on behalf of his friend. He didn't state what he did exactly but he was by no means bashful about the chance the drug court has given him to "turn a new leaf".

It was so pleasant to hear him boast about becoming an apprentice mechanic through the rehabilitation programme and earning money. He has also started playing football and has even become a member of a church. He ended by saying these activities have changed his life, and that although he still interacts with his friends, he looks at life differently.

I can't help but wonder how we could all work together to ensure that more young people like Devon can benefit from these kinds of programmes. How many of those young people that have been charged with offences related to their dependence on drugs have continued using drugs after serving their time, and return to commit similar, or even greater, offences? Were they privileged to benefit from counseling and other rehabilitation programmes? I imagine that given the prevalence of drug use and the fact that there are only two drug courts in operation (though several attorneys, clerks and others have been appropriately trained).

Not surprisingly, one of the drug courts is in the Corporate Area and the other in St James. I understand another will soon be established in St Thomas. Plans are under way for St Catherine and Manchester as well.


One of the drug court's main problems is the lack of funding to sustain its work. They also have no test kits for alcoholism to do necessary tests with persons. These challenges were eloquently ventilated by graduates Justice Ellis, the Chief Justice Zaila McCalla, and others as they encouraged people to support this very important work.

I commend the ministries of justice and health for leading this over the years. This is another good example of how different ministries can collaborate to reduce crime and violence. Kudos to the persons in the private sector who have been working with the drug court to provide opportunities for employment and job training for the participants of the programmes over the years. I was elated when the mayor of Kingston, Senator Angela Brown Burke, pledged KSAC's support and asked the justices to come and do an information session with them.

The drug court needs investment. Every parish should have one. It is in our best interests to do all we can to contribute to programmes that are likely to reduce recidivism. I implore the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, and Micro Medium and Small Enterprises Alliance to help as best as they can despite the difficult economic times. Finally, I urge you to lobby your member of parliament to push for the establishment of a drug court in your parish too.

Not his real name.

Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.

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