Specialist courts have begun to pop up all over the world for dealing with drug abuse, domestic violence, mental health problems and gun crime, with rehabilitation as their focus. In an effort to correct the shortcomings of the traditional penal system, specialist drug courts address addiction as the cause of crime and neglect, and in curing it, hope to prevent further harm occurring. I studied the specialist Drug Court in Kingston, Jamaica over a period of four months in 2009, and went on to research the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (“FDAC”) at Wells Street Family Proceedings Court in London. These two courts differ significantly in their scope, but share similarities which illustrate the major advantages of such a system.


The Drug Court

In Jamaica, the Drug Court has been running as a long term pilot scheme for the last nine years. It was made possible by legislation in the form of the Drug Court Act 1999. The Act dictates who is eligible for diversion from the regular Magistrates’ Court, and what services may be offered; it also fixes the term for the programme at six months. Eligible candidates, addicted to drugs, must have been charged with a summary offence and bailed. They must have a supportive family, or at least somewhere safe to live, with no major mental health problems or other court matters pending. They must want to change, and remain motivated and drug free throughout the programme. The Drug Court team aims to address the cause of the crimes they see by helping people solve their drug problems, giving them a chance to change, backed up with more support than most have had in a lifetime. On successful participation over six months, the defendant pleads guilty, graduates, has the conviction struck from the record and gets discharged into the hands of a probation team.



The Family Drug and Alcohol Court at Wells Street (“FDAC”) was created when three London boroughs joined forces to confront the huge number of children that were being taken into care due to parental substance misuse. The three boroughs decided on funding for FDAC in 2005 and the court opened in 2007. District Judge Nick Crichton, resident judge at the Inner London Family Proceedings Court, had been impressed by the American version of the specialist court and secured the funding for further research and a pilot scheme. It has been running for two years so far, and the pilot has been extended for at least one year past its scheduled three, taking it to 2012. The FDAC, he says, is “incredibly cheap” to run when compared with the cost of taking children, sometimes the successive children of one family, into care. The cost effectiveness is what will finally persuade the government that this is a good idea, he argues. “It should not be that though, it should be the overwhelmingly positive effect on children’s lives.” The aim of FDAC is to enable more children to remain with their birth families and ensure that those who cannot return are found permanent alternative placements as soon as possible. The idea is different to the traditional system, where the problems of the parent are not the subject of proceedings, and so cannot be dealt with by the court. Here, there is a presumption that drug addicted, or alcoholic parents can and will change with help. There is no time limit for graduation from the programme, but especially when children are very young, time may run out. The timescale from start to graduation is generally between 8 and 15 months.


Jamaica: The Drug Court

The Drug Court, which has been created to deal specifically with certain drug abuse offenders, has been introduced in two locations in the Half-Tree-House Magistrates’ Court in Kingston and Montego Bay, St James.
The Drug Court is presided over by a resident magistrate and two Justices of the Peace, who have jurisdiction with respect to any offence triable by a Resident Magistrates’ Court.

The court involves the participation of judges, prosecutors, defence counsel, a substance abuse specialist, probation officers and law enforcement personnel. There are certain requirements that must be satisfied before an offender can stand trial in the Drug Court. Firstly, the person has to be charged with a relevant offence, meaning one that is triable in a Resident Magistrates’ Court. Secondly, the arresting officer must be satisfied that the person has a drug problem. Rehabilitation covers intensive and continuous judicially supervised treatment, mandatory drug testing and the use of other rehabilitation services.


The role of the judge

The personality of the judge is crucial to the success of the programmes in both countries. Keeping the same cases from start to finish, they must maintain a firm but sympathetic manner, which encourages honesty; they must praise successes easily. “We’re really proud of you this week. Your shirt and pants are smart, you’re standing straight, you’ve made an effort.” Such comments in Jamaica were always followed by polite applause, a surprising sound in a court room for the uninitiated. But still it is the judge that wields the power to take away someone’s child, or put them in prison. They must carry this responsibility and not be afraid to use it, or commitment to the programme slides.

The role of the judge at the FDAC has expanded to deal with other problems in people’s lives—housing, financial, personal. I heard District Judge Crichton in London check whether the hole in one woman’s ceiling had been mended yet. “I’ve written to the council, we really need to get this sorted out. If you come back and it’s still not fixed, I’ll have smoke coming out of my ears.” The same afternoon he helped someone else with a mouse infestation in their home. He later explained that when people are vulnerable, any extra strain can push them over the edge. It is this attention to the detail of people’s lives that makes people in the programme feel that they are not the only ones with a stake in their future.


A support network

This responsibility does not lie only with the judges.  Both courts have a team of dedicated specialists, a supportive collective for the judge to consult on every decision. The defendant is in weekly contact with the same psychiatrist and the same social workers throughout the programme; even the same nurse will perform the drugs test. A trusting relationship can thus be built up both ways; problems are reported and dealt with, and each programme can be tailored accounting for individual strengths and weaknesses.
The unusually intimate connection with the court is noted by successful graduates as a contributing factor to their success. “I want to thank Your Honour, and Dr Oo [resident psychiatrist to the Drug Court] for the week in, week out constructive talks that you gave. Lots of times you say things that are really true.”

At the graduation ceremony in the Jamaican Drug Court everyone gave a speech while the defendant beamed. Free from cocaine for six months, he had turned his back from his life of car stealing and burglary, and went back to his family.
In London, a couple brought their impossibly rosy cheeked ten-month-old son in to see the judge: “Hello little man!” The couple had successfully re-established contact with the boy after emerging from a haze of drugs and neglect, and he was gradually getting used to his newly decorated bedroom. “I said at the start I would be happy if we helped one in four” said District Judge Crichton later. “We are succeeding with one in three at the moment, and these are the toughest cases.”


Lessons to be learned

The extraordinarily high murder rate in Jamaica is just one of the pressures on the justice system that differs to that in England. Conversely, although heroin destroys thousands of lives in England and Wales, it is not present in Jamaica. Much more so than here, the poverty of the Jamaican government is an obstacle to even the most basic of rehabilitative programmes. The role of the Drug Court is all the more important because of this—heavy users of cocaine and marijuana contribute significantly to unemployment, illness, violence and crime. In the UK the criminal justice system addresses drug problems in numerous different ways, from compulsory testing in police stations when charging with recordable crimes, to rehabilitation services in prison. There are NGOs and charities in all the London Boroughs, and throughout the major cities, helping with all aspects of drug related problems. These resources should be celebrated, but more can still be done.

Dr Oo, resident psychiatrist to the Drug Court in Kingston, was talking to the team in the pre-court briefing about the enormous effort required to give up drugs. “Have any of you been on a diet?” He asked, gaining a few nods in response. “Did any of you struggle, or lose some weight, then put it back on again? Imagine how difficult it is to give up drugs.” The punitive approach to drugs has not worked: perhaps it is time to focus our efforts on therapeutic justice.

Elizabeth Forrester was called to the Bar by Middle Temple (2009).