Criminal justice responses to drug and drug-related offending: are they working?


The criminal justice system is constantly evolving in response to changing social, economic and political pressures. One that gathered momentum during the 1980s and 1990s was community concern about increasing crime rates, particularly property and violent crime, and the perceived link with illicit drug use and drug dependency, notably heroin. In response, Australia has experienced a proliferation of criminal justice initiatives aimed at addressing the drugs/crime nexus. Over the past seven or eight years, almost every state and territory has implemented a range of so-called drug diversion programs that operate at different points along the criminal justice continuum. These initiatives can be divided into four groups: police-based programs that offer drug education and assessment for individuals detected for minor possession offences pertaining to either cannabis and/or other illicit substances; court level, predominantly bail-based programs designed to provide assessment and short term treatment for less serious offenders whose criminal behaviour is related to their illicit drug use; intensive pre- and post-sentencing drug court programs that offer long term, intensive treatment for entrenched offenders whose drug dependency is a key contributor to their offending; and the NSW Compulsory Drug Treatment Correctional Centre, specialising in abstinence-based treatment and rehabilitation for offenders with 'long term illicit drug dependency and an associated life of crime and constant imprisonment'. At first glance the costs of these programs are substantial, with the Australian Government allocating supportive funding of $340m over 1999-2000 to 2007-08. If these initiatives are achieving their objectives, then such costs should be more than offset by the benefits accruing to the community through a reduction in illicit drug use and related offending, improved health and wellbeing for former drug dependent offenders and reduced case loads for the criminal justice system. This report attempts to provide some insight into the questions of whether these programs are in fact working and meeting their primary aims by giving an overview of key findings from national and state-based evaluations that have been undertaken of these initiatives. It summarises the outcome-based results currently available, identifies the knowledge gaps that still exist, and points to areas where further work is required to provide a more definitive insight into the value of these programs.