Courting success?

The statistics make for grim reading. Illicit drug use in Scotland
has increased by more than 233 per cent over the last decade. There
are 2.5 million drug-related crimes in Scotland every year, part of
a problem that costs Scotland £300m annually. There are an
estimated 55,800 problematic drug users – or roughly 2 per cent of
the population aged 15-54 – and drug-related deaths in Scotland
rose by 14 per cent last year to 332.

In a search for solutions, the Scottish executive looked to the
United States where drugs courts were developed in the late 1980s
and early 1990s. The courts aimed to reduce the level of
drug-related offending and to offer effective treatment and support
to drug users within the community as an alternative to custody.
Impressed with what they found, the executive set up a working
group in February, headed by Sheriff Principal Edward Bowen, and
the first drugs court sat in Glasgow in November last year.

The court has its own team, consisting of a procurator fiscal and a
dedicated bench of sheriffs. Operating for four days a week, the
team is supported by police and social workers. Those considered to
be suitable to be dealt with by the drugs court undergo a rigorous
programme of assessment and rehabilitation, including urine tests,
in a bid to prove to the court team they are making every effort to
stop offending.

From arrest, drug offenders dealt with by the new court make
contact up to twice a week with workers over a four-week assessment
and testing period before being handed a drug treatment and testing
order (DTTO) of up to three years by a sheriff.

In the first six months of operation, the Glasgow drugs court heard
more than 60 cases and imposed 33 DTTOs. The court is expected to
hear between 150 and 200 cases a year.

Regular checks

During the period of the order offenders have to check in regularly
for further assessments by health and social workers to see how far
they have gone in tackling their addiction. Anyone considered by
the court to be failing the provision of the order can face further

The DTTOs were first piloted in Glasgow and Fife sheriff courts in
2000, and have since been extended to Aberdeen. The executive
believes they are a far more cost-effective way of dealing with the
problem estimating that the average cost of a 12-month DTTO is
£7,992 compared to £14,187 – the estimated cost of a
six-month prison sentence.

Second court

After the successful take-up of the orders, a second drugs court in
Fife will start to hear cases this month and will cover the sheriff
court districts of Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline. There are an
estimated 2,867 problematic drug users in Fife, and the drugs court
is expected to have an annual caseload of 150-180 offenders on

Criminal justice service manager Jane Martin explains that the
system in Fife will differ from Glasgow in that referrals to court
can be made at any stage, unlike Glasgow which is confined to
people appearing from custody and pleading guilty (although clearly
a plea or finding of guilt is also necessary in Fife). Also, in
Fife the drugs court sheriff will make and review all DTTOs whereas
in Glasgow sheriffs other than drugs courts sheriffs can make and
review orders.

David Liddell is director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, and he
welcomes the introduction of the drugs courts: “We are very
supportive of their introduction, and the initial indications are
that the Glasgow court has been successful.” He says Scotland has
successfully identified a target group of offending drug users who
in their early 30s and 40s and are tired of the revolving door of
drug use, crime, prison and reoffending. He stresses though, that
criminal justice cannot be the only focus if the problem is to be
successfully tackled. “You have to see this in the widest context.
We would very much see DTTO and drugs courts in the context of
social inclusion,” he says.

“The people currently being helped by DTTOs are probably 10 years
down the line of their problem. We have got to work hard at
developing early intervention and outreach services to engage
younger drug users.”

He also stresses the importance of looking not just at treatment
options, but at how drug users can move on and into employment,
citing the Scottish executive’s New Futures Fund as a good example
of work that is being done to improve the employability of this
vulnerable group.

Phoenix House is a charity that helps offenders get off drugs and
works with people on DTTOs. Fiona Cameron is team manager at the
organisation’s Glasgow base, and her experience is that the scheme
has been successful in enabling their clients to reduce their drug
use and criminal activity. However, she is concerned about what
happens to people who are not able to remain drug free. “I applaud
what the executive is trying to do, but there is concern that the
resources are not there to help users who are not able to be drug
free,” she says, pointing out that 60-70 per cent of drug users
will not remain drug free after only seven days from release from

“We are an abstinence-based organisation for people who are
completely drug free or on very low doses of methadone. Sometimes
when clients come in here drug free, it’s only because they have
been in prison and it has been enforced. We get them on methadone
as quickly as possible, but if the methadone level goes above the
limit we will accept, my experience is that the drug court team
struggles to find services for them.”

No soft option

She is also quick to refute allegations that have been made by some
commentators that the DTTOs are a soft alternative to custody.
“What people have to understand is how difficult it is for drug
users on a DTTO to live on the same street, have to see their
dealer every day and be offered free drugs and remain drug free.
The clients we work with would all say that being on an order is a
much tougher option than being in custody.”

The executive, meanwhile, remains upbeat about the courts. Research
evaluating the two DTTO pilots in Glasgow and Fife was due to be
published as Community Care went to press, and is expected to show
a decrease in offending and in drug taking for those offenders
placed on an order. Deputy justice minister Richard Simpson says:
“It is clear that already DTTOs have had a positive and dramatic
effect in reducing drug-related crime. The executive is committed
to tackling offending behaviour where crime is committed to feed a
drug habit. We are in the process of rolling out DTTOs across
Scotland, and I am greatly encouraged at the positive impact
Scotland’s first drugs court in Glasgow is having on the number of
DTTOs being imposed by Sheriffs in the rest of the city.”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.