Youth drug court victim of budget cuts, say Salvos

The Salvation army ...  no longer able to lead the fight in helping young offenders.
The Salvation army ... no longer able to lead the fight in helping young offenders.

THE head of the Salvation Army unit involved in the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court has accused the government of dishonesty in its use of figures that purport to show the court is a failure.

John Drew, the general manager of the army's Youthlink service, said the claim the court had been ineffective was wrong.

''The government is not being honest about the reasons for closing the court,'' he said. ''I think the reason is budget cuts.''

Anger is growing over the government's surprise closure of the court on July 1 after 12 years of operation. The court directed youth from ages 14 to 18 who faced custodial sentences for drug-related crimes to intensive rehabilitation programs instead.

''The government is going back to locking up young offenders instead of allowing them access to programs that can turn their lives around,'' Mr Drew said.

For the past eight years, the Salvation Army has been the key agency overseeing the recovery program, which included up to 13 weeks in residential rehabilitation and linked young people to nurses, a psychiatrist, TAFE educators and jobs. Over a year, the army supported 100 youngsters. Once the six-month court-mandated program was over, the army also provided six months of after-care.

Mr Drew said the government's reasoning was the low number of graduates, on average 17 a year, from the $4 million-a-year program. However, the government had ignored the higher number of ''self-discharged'' youngsters who left, usually after five months, on the advice of the court's solicitors. These typically were told they had done enough of the program to avoid a custodial sentence. These self-discharged youngsters also usually completed four months of after-care.

Mr Drew said in the past three years at least 48 had graduated from the six-month course and another 71 were self-discharged. ''The self-discharged are not being counted at all,'' he said.

Mr Drew said high recidivism rates were another reason given for the closure but the government would not provide the information publicly. Nor had the internal reviewers from the Attorney-General's Department consulted any of the coalface workers, including magistrates and the Salvation Army.

A spokesman for the Attorney-General, Greg Smith, said it was not possible in the available time to respond to the Salvation Army's claims.

The director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, said an external evaluation of the court had not been possible because of the small numbers involved and the difficulty of establishing a control group.

''The assumption had been because the adult drug court was spectacularly successful the youth one would be, too,'' he said. ''But the academic literature suggests the effects are pretty moderate. Unlike adults, many juveniles have not got to the point where they accept their substance abuse is out of control and they have a serious sentence hanging over their heads.''

A 17-year-old graduate who spoke to the Herald said he had broken a cycle of crime and drug use that began when he was 12 thanks to the program. ''I knew that if I did the program I'd stay out of custody,'' he said. ''So I knuckled down. I got my driver's licence and a job. If I was behind bars I would've been thinking 'just get me out of here'.''

This story Youth drug court victim of budget cuts, say Salvos first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.