We can’t afford to make cuts to drug court

Posted on September 14, 2015 in Health Delivery System

TheStar.com – News/GTA – Toronto’s Drug Treatment Court has been forced to make budget cuts; the cuts will not save money, and will put lives at risk.
Sep 13 2015.   By: Joe Fiorito, Columnist

The Toronto Drug Treatment Court may be the best thing we do. Through the TDTC, we offer an alternative to jail for those who get nailed on drug or drug-related charges; instead of going to the slammer, men and women get a chance to choose treatment.

This is breathtakingly simple, and it achieves several seemingly impossible goals at once: it helps men and women break the cycle of drugs, crime and the law; it saves money by cutting the cost of enforcement; it keeps the city safer by reducing certain kinds of crime; oh, and it saves lives. We should be doubling and redoubling our efforts.

And yet we are forced to cut back.

Robin Cuff is the manager of the TDTC. She works out of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. You’d like her because has a big heart and she is tough and smart and quick to laugh, but mention the cut and her eyes well up.

She said, “We serve people who have long addiction histories with crack, with opiates, with meth, and who have a long criminal history of non-violent crime — theft, break-ins, low-level dealing.”

How do people hear about the program? “We have police liaison; sometimes the police will mention it to someone who has been arrested. The duty counsels all know about it. And we have a community advisory program involving people from justice, from housing, from addictions, from harm reduction.”

What’s the incentive? She is emphatic, and realistic. “You get out of jail. We’re not naïve — sometimes that’s the motivation — but sometimes people realize that it’s time for a change. You get not just treatment, but help with housing, and with health care.”

Why is that important for us to help people instead of punishing them? “If you look at our jails — we have criminalized mental illness, addiction, trauma, race and poverty.”

I draw your eye to one quick point in the midst of that list: chronic drug use is almost always related, in some way, to trauma. The usual course of action? We jail people who are caught in the grip to trauma, in order to traumatize them further.

How stupid is that? Because the thing about prison is that everyone who goes in comes out better at being bad.

Drug Treatment Court aims to reverse the damage. It began here in December of 1998 when Justice Bentley began to note a revolving door of repeat offenders. He did some research. He approached CAMH.

The rest is the history of us at our best.

Robin said, “We serve 160 people a year. That’s not a lot, but the program is a minimum of 12 months, and most people stay between 18-24 months.

“We use a lot of harm reduction principles, No one is punished for slipping but we expect people to be truthful, and to tell the judge if they’ve used crack that week.”

In other words, slippage is not fatal. And that provides a safety net for those who are battling addiction. She said, “We never go a week without someone walking through who didn’t finish, but who knows they can come back.” I love persistence.

OK, what about the money?

She said, “The budget is $750,000. But we recently had a funding reduction of 20 per cent. Actually it’s more than that because we’ve had no increases for the past ten years.”

The reason for the reduction? And if you have teeth, prepare to gnash them now: “As of April, the feds decided to download the money to the provinces, so that the program could be provided in provinces that did not have it.”

That sounds good on the surface, but the feds did not increase the pot — they just cut the pie in smaller slices. Absurdly, the feds can now argue that no money has been cut, while at the same time the arguing that the program has been extended.

In fact, Drug Treatment Court has been cut hard where it is needed the most. Toronto has lost three and a half staff positions over the years. Robin does not know if more money can be found.

Frankly, I think this is a health issue. It is also an issue in which the cops have a stake. Oh, hell, we all have a stake.

A final note: at the moment, there is a waiting list to get into the TDTC. Robin winced and said, “When people hear there’s a waiting list they don’t apply, because they’ll have to wait in jail.” In other words, people make a practical calculation: if I have to do time in order to avoid doing time, I might as well do time.

A small observation:  There is no waiting list for jail.

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