While the horizon must seem unrelievedly grim to many citizens, once in a while a few specks of bright light appear to relieve the gloom. And so it was recently when it was announced that the country’s first drug treatment court was to be established within three months. The objective is to provide alternatives to imprisonment for drug-dependent offenders who have committed minor crimes, and to make treatment available to them.
The announcement was made at a training workshop for the court, where it was revealed the initiative for the project had come from the OAS/CICAD and was part of Guyana’s National Drug Master Plan 2016-20.
In his opening remarks, director general of the National Anti-Narcotics Agency Major General (retired) Michael Atherly, emphasised the role the court could play in reducing the overcrowding in our prisons by the provision of alternative sentencing.
For her part, Chief Justice (ag) Roxane George explained it would be “an adult treatment court... the defendant must have pleaded guilty or have been guilty of an approved offence [and] will only be eligible to participate in the treatment programme which the court will facilitate as an alternative of incarceration”. The list of approved offences was still being finalised, she said, but these will involve non-violent, summary and minor offences.
It will, of course, as director general Atherly pointed out, require a change in the mindset of both the police and the Customs Anti-Narcotic Unit officials so they will recognise the long-term benefits of recommending an offender participate in the programme.
Where that is concerned, the public might be forgiven for indulging a certain private reservation, since changing attitudes in general in this society has always proved problematical, and in the case of the police even more so. Despite all the workshops to train police in how to handle domestic violence cases, for example, these are still not being taken as seriously as they should be, and neither are the guidelines underscored in training always followed.
The Chief Justice alluded to both anecdotal and empirical evidence, which indicated there was a growing number of people who were substance abusers and who came into contact with the criminal justice system. Certainly it is the perception of citizens generally that drugs are more in evidence than ever before, and that the number of abusers of narcotics who feed their habit through petty crime is indeed on the increase. What can be said is imprisonment as a penalty appears to be having little impact.
“Drug treatment courts are, therefore, problem-solving courts,” Justice George said, “and are part of concerted efforts in judicial systems to see substance abusers who have contact with the law and, therefore, contact with the court as persons who are in need of a more caring and supportive environment and court experience.” The idea is to help them become productive and law-abiding members of society.
With this in mind, the new court will comprise a team including a magistrate, state counsel from the DPP’s office, a police prosecutor, a police officer, social services or probation officer, defence counsel, a substance abuse treatment provider and anyone else the team may require. For his part, director general Atherly said the court would also be seen as a place where treatment and rehabilitation could be prescribed, with or without sentencing.
But herein lies a problem. It is impossible to know at this stage exactly how many of those who appear before the court will be prescribed treatment, but one would have thought that in theory, at least, all of them, or nearly all of them, should be. But to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Guyana has only two treatment and rehabilitation centres—that run by the Salvation Army, and the Phoenix Recovery Project—neither of which is free. The first question to be asked, therefore, is whether the project includes provisions for the payment of treatment, or if there is some plan in the offing for a government-sponsored drug rehabilitation centre.
While there is no doubt easing the court system and relieving the overcrowding in prisons are desirable ends in themselves, that does not strike at the heart of the problem, viz getting people off drugs. In fact, Guyana has taken a very laissez-faire approach to the matter of treating drug dependency in the society as a whole, despite the fact that there is evidence certain narcotic substances are being peddled in some of our schools.
The approach to the problem has been draconian legislation and compulsory jail terms, even for possession of quite small quantities of drugs, although all parties are now currently agreed that this is in need of amendment. Given the current political imbroglio, however, exactly when that will happen is not clear.
What ideally one would like to see is a major and sustained public campaign against drug use—and alcohol abuse, it might be added—similar to that which was mounted against cigarette smoking, and which achieved such positive results. Most of all, however, one would want to have treatment and rehabilitation at the heart of our drugs policy, and for the government to pour substantial funds into projects with that in mind.
Prisons alone do not address the fundamental problem throughout the society, although they are a necessary adjunct; if there is no treatment available, we will not be able to reduce the number of those incarcerated. While the move to institute a drug treatment court is to be commended, one can only hope it is given the means to implement all aspects of its programme.