High praise for ‘superstar’ recovery

Chief Magistrate Lisa Hannan, Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, Dandenong MP Gabrielle Williams and South East Metropolitan MP Tien Kieu at the launch of the new Dandenong Drug Court. Picture: CAM LUCADOU-WELLS

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

For ‘Aaron’, the presence of three judges may have boded ill for him.

But the Dandenong Drug Court ‘graduate’ was instead feted by a captive audience of state Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, Dandenong MP Gabrielle Williams, Victoria’s Chief Magistrate Lisa Hannan and magistrates Susan Wakeling and Suzanne Cameron.

In the eyes of the justice system, Aaron is a “superstar” who made the most of a golden chance to recover from the lowest depths.

And the Drug Court is being hailed as a success story. A more cost-effective option than prison that delivers lower re-offending rates.

At the launch of the Drug Court’s new offices in Dandenong, he deservedly took centre stage.

Yet a year ago, a drug addicted Aaron faced possible jail after being caught with 28 grams ice and an unlicensed gun.

He was instead offered a drug treatment order by Dandenong Drug Court magistrate Gerard Bryant.

So began an innovative carrot-and-stick approach.

Aaron faced a packed schedule of daily appointments, weekly reviews and three urine tests a week.

He was given every possible support such as stable housing, drug rehab, counselling, job and life skills coaching and social opportunities.

But if he was to misstep, there was the looming threat of short, sharp jail stints or being exited from the program.

Mr Bryant told Aaron at the start he had to be resilient. That it was a marathon of up to two years, not a sprint, Aaron recalls.

Aaron kept up the pace, with no stumbles.

He had been using drugs for years – and spiralling deeper – to numb the pain from a series of family tragedies, including the awful murder of his sister.

Afer one year of Drug Court, he is graduating after only one year, expecting a child with his “beautiful partner” and looking at becoming an alcohol-and-drug counsellor.

“I grabbed the order with both hands. It takes a bit of resilience and a bit of courage.

“Drug Court gives you back the values you lost in the past.”

So far this year, Aaron is one of 11 who have graduated from the court’s therapeutic program of ‘tough love’, also known as drug treatment orders.

A 2015 evaluation found the court achieved a 31 per cent reduction in re-offending in the first 12 months after a DTO.

That included a 90 per cent reduction in trafficking.

“It’s something that works,” deputy chief magistrate Susan Wakeling says.

For candidates who want to “make change in their lives”, the drug court provides them the supports and activities to do it.

“It’s safer for the community to put people in drug court than in jail.”

Melbourne magistrate Suzanne Cameron said the “refreshing” program’s impact was “immeasurable”.

It tackled the source of the participants’ criminal offending – which was drug addiction.

After its successful pilot in Dandenong, the drug court has expanded to Melbourne CBD.

The State Government will invest $35 million on installing the court in Shepparton and Ballarat with a pilot in the County Court of Victoria.

Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said the program was expanding because “we know that Drug Courts work – reducing recidivism, supporting rehabilitation and helping people get their lives back on track”.

Ms Williams said the community had benefited from the program for close to 20 years.

“I’m delighted that this new, purpose-built facility will ensure this continues into the future.”