The Queensland Government has acted on recommendations by researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) and allocated more than $22m over four years to reinstate its Drug Court program.
Led by the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods’ Dr Jason Payne, the review for the Queensland Department of Justice found that reinstating the courts would be an effective way of treating high-risk offenders.
“It’s pleasing to be part of something that has the potential to change lives,” Dr Payne says.
The Labour government received Dr Payne’s study in late 2016 and in June 2017 announced the new funding.
That followed a decision by a former government in 2012 to disband the court program, which began as a pilot in 2000.
The ANU led a joint study with the Australian Institute of Criminology reviewing international best practices among drug courts.
Dr Payne, ANU colleague Professor Toni Makkai, and the institute’s Anthony Morgan spent five months reviewing the literature and conducting face-to-face interviews across Queensland with parties including senior judicial and correctional services officials, and former drug court clients.
“We now know from years of both quantitative and qualitative research on drug courts that they are among the most effective interventions for seriously dependent drug users who are engaged in the criminal justice system,” Dr Payne says.
One of the team’s recommendations was for the Queensland government to systematically evaluate the drug court program and sub-programs from day one of its restoration.
“The principal challenge when you build a program like this is that you build into it evidence-based best practice, such that what’s being offered to the client of that program is indeed consistent with what we know works for treating drug use and criminal offending,” Dr Payne explains.
“Evaluating and making sure that it maintains a regular process of review will be one way in which the Queensland program will be able to be influential in guiding what is best practice.”
Dr Payne says one limitation of drug courts is they service a fraction of drug users in the criminal justice system, and are reserved for high-risk, high-need offenders.
“The real question here is how you build a drug court and support it with interventions that proceed it, to ensure that everyone, from the first time user to the heavily dependent user is getting the best practice,” he says.
The researchers also found the best drug courts are those that offer a suite of services, including programs that address an offender’s homelessness or unemployment.
Offenders would spend 12 to 18 months within the drug court system, depending on how much help an individual needed.
Dr Payne relished the opportunity to help shape a study which could have wide implications.
“It’s not often that academics get to have this kind of front-line impact on government policy development,” Dr Payne says.
“As a researcher, being able to directly influence policy like this is incredibly uplifting. Better still, is knowing that as a criminologist your research can actually help to transform the lives and experiences of victims and offenders in the criminal justice system”