Scotland’s Drug Courts are Changing Lives

Marc Donnachie is 25 years old. For the past seven years, he says, he has been a junkie, a jagger and a smackhead. He struggles to remember how many times he has been to prison, but thinks it’s about 12. His teeth, white and gleaming, are all false. Heroin addicts, he tells me, usually have rotten teeth because they don’t think about eating meals, only sugary tea and chocolate.

His arms are flawless and appear vein-less. The blue vessels shrank and disappeared years ago from daily injecting. His right leg, he explains, is slightly wider than his left from the septicaemia he suffered two years ago after injecting in his groin. Doctors told him they would have to amputate it, but he was lucky.

The details of his addiction, which he recalls in a particularly matter-of-fact way, are shocking. To most people, his history of shoplifting and drug-dealing would be morally repugnant – but talking to him it is impossible to ignore the fact he is articulate, charismatic and remorseful. More importantly, he is now off illicit drugs, and has been since January. He is one of about 400 offending drug addicts to have gone through Glasgow’s specialist drug court, the first to be officially sanctioned in Europe.

Earlier this year the drug court pilots in Glasgow and Fife, which began in 2001 and 2002 respectively, were granted permanent status by the Scottish Executive. An evaluation found that 84% of offenders committed two or fewer crimes after being placed on a Drug Treatment and Testing Order (DTTO) to tackle their habits.

Clients who completed their orders had fewer convictions in the two years after their involvement than in the two years immediately before. But despite huge improvements in the health and lifestyle of those going through the system, the evaluation also found that 50% of drug court clients had been reconvicted within one year, and 71% within two years. Such recidivism figures proved difficult reading for ministers considering rolling out such an expensive pilot.

Marc Donnachie, who is half-way through an 18-month order, is one of the success stories. He tried heroin for the first time on his 18th birthday, and within two years he was spending up to £100 a day on drugs, which came from shoplifting and, latterly, dealing.

The cost of putting him through the treatment process has to be considered in light of the fact he is no longer offending and has finally broken the costly yo-yo cycle of going into and out of prison.

At 18 he had his own flat and a job, but within months he was homeless and unemployed, with an addiction escalating out of control. “Even though I had seen what it could do to folk, I thought I would be fine – that they were junkies and that somehow I was different,” he says.

In the first few months he spent about £20 a day on heroin – enough for half a gram. He was able to cover the cost with his salary and by doing overtime in the factory he worked in, but he started craving more and lost his job after repeatedly failing to show up on time.

“We would get up at 7.30am and be in the shops at 9am to do a full day of shoplifting,” he says. “We knew where the cameras were and what time the security staff started. Mainly I was stealing litre bottles of alcohol from the supermarkets.

“But after a few years the shoplifting wasn’t covering the cost. I was spending between £70 and £100 a day on heroin and cocaine, so I started dealing. “By last year I was getting sick of the life I was leading. I was due up in court just a few weeks after I got out of prison, and knew I’d get another four or five months inside. You have to be ready to change.

“The drug court was just completely different. After the medical assessments and meetings I was up before the judge asking me questions and talking to me. It was strange; I’d never been spoken to like that before. The judge shows a real interest. When you get a good review, the sheriff jokes with you – but I’ve seen guys get bad reports and have a real dressing down.”

Drug courts were developed in the US in the late 1980s, and there are now approximately 2000 of them there. England and Norway are now copying the Scottish model, and David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, visited the Glasgow court during his tenure. The stated aims of the dedicated multi-agency team which makes up the drug court are to reduce the level of drug-related offending behaviour, and to reduce or eliminate offenders’ dependence on illicit substances.

DTTOs, one of the measures administered in the specialist courts, are now available across Scotland as an alternative to custody, but the drug courts themselves have not yet been rolled out – a decision thought to be motivated by their cost. The two pilot schemes have already cost more then £6m. But with more than 80% of new prisoners testing positive for drugs, and up to 40% of those in prison still testing positive, thousands of people are thought to be eligible for DTTOs.

The evaluation of the courts also revealed that they are more cost- effective and more likely to change people’s long-term behaviour than prison. An 18-month order at the Glasgow drug court costs £24,408 – almost half the cost of the same period in prison, which is £46,008. Research also shows that every pound spent on drug treatment saves £3 in the criminal justice system.

Government reports estimate that the cost to society of drug misuse is more than £4bn, of which £1bn is incurred within the criminal justice system through drug-related crime. Research in Glasgow found that 8500 heroin injectors in the city alone might be responsible for drug-related thefts estimated at a cost of £200m.

Those referred to the drug court are assessed and given medical treatment within 48 hours. Then they are introduced to their social worker and addiction worker, and given a diary containing their appointments and treatments, which may include cognitive therapy. After this the induction programme begins, which includes group sessions about how to reduce drug-taking and turn up on time to appointments.

“Encouragement is one of the strongest tools in the drug court,” says Moira Price, the specialist court co-ordinator. “The order offers a direct alternative to prison for these people, and offers them a better chance of changing their behavioural patterns.

“Of those who have gone through the drug court, the average number of convictions was 30, with an average of 15 previous custodial sentences. In some cases people had committed up to 50 or 60 offences. If we can stop these people offending, even if there is a relatively small number of them, it will make a big difference because they were committing such a disproportionately high number of crimes before.

“Our stated aim is to reduce or eliminate the use of drugs. It would not be realistic to expect people to give up all drugs in 18 months after a 20 or 30-year habit, but if we can stabilise them and reduce their offending and use of illicit drugs then I think we will have done well.”

Glasgow Sheriff Court is the busiest in Europe, with its courtrooms handling 11,000 cases every year. Mondays are the busiest day of the week, with the court dominated by the number of custody cases taken in over the weekend.

Sitting in the dedicated drug court, the atmosphere is less chaotic; almost serene. Sat at the top table, rather than the usual wigs and gowns, are a social worker and specialist procurator-fiscal.

The men filing in to the courtroom, with girlfriends at their side, have all been here before. They come here at least once a month to stand before the same sheriff and discuss how well they are coping with quitting a life of prolific offending and chaotic drug misuse. This is the one courtroom where Latin phrases and gowns do not reign supreme. In fact, the lawyers are asked to sit down so the sheriff can speak directly to the men in the dock.

Sheriff Lindsay Wood, one of four judges who sit in the drug court, greets the clients before him. He purposefully chooses those with the best reviews first, as a good example to their waiting colleagues.

Jason Wallace is 31 but looks almost twice as old. Sheriff Wood says he has a five-star review, and asks how he has settled in his new flat. As the other men approach the dock, the sheriff deploys a mixture of disappointment and praise to chide them along their way. There is a feeling that this is the last-chance saloon for many of these men. Anyone who still considers snorting lines of white coke off toilet cisterns through £20 notes as a glamourous pastime should spend the afternoon here. Listening to the dialogue between the men (and this afternoon they are all men) who have lost everything to their addiction and the judge who wants to strike a balance between fair and firm is highly emotive.

“In America they offer them bonuses and sanctions, but the tools I use are words,” Sheriff Wood explains afterwards. “It is about getting their lives back, having their relationships restored. This is not a soft option.

“What we do works. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for most it is an incredible opportunity. You have to put the right resources in, though, and that comes at a cost. It is something of a carrot-and-stick approach. There are more balancing acts in the drug court than with our normal business. It is a totally different dynamic. Normally the judge just passes sentence, but in the drug court we engage with them. It’s a bit like playing the football manager. Some of them you need to put an arm round, but some need to get the Alex Ferguson treatment.”

For Marc Donnachie, such encouragement has transformed his life, and the financial cost seems irrelevant. Next week he moves back into a flat of his own, and next month he will start a college course in social care to train to be a support worker to help others going through drug addiction.