05/13/2014 12:09 EDT | Updated 07/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Manitoba calls for more federal funding for drug court; cash runs out in 2015

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's attorney general says a rare court that helps turn lives around through supervised drug rehab is in danger of shutting down unless Ottawa comes up with long-term funding.

Andrew Swan says federal cash runs out next year for Manitoba's drug treatment court, which is one of only six across the country. The court costs Ottawa $600,000 a year, but Swan says the Conservative government won't commit to a funding extension.

It takes people up to two years to complete the program and the court is no longer accepting new participants in light of the funding uncertainty.

"It's very frustrating," Swan said in an interview. "There may be people who would be a good candidate to become part of drug treatment court. For right now, that option is not available. They'll have to proceed through the regular system."

The first drug treatment court opened in Toronto in 1998. Others followed in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Regina.

Participants are thoroughly screened and have to be approved by a judge before they are accepted. Once admitted, the participants make regular court appearances, submit to random and frequent urine drug testing and attend scheduled treatment sessions.

There have been almost 300 participants since the Winnipeg court opened and the recidivism rate is about 16 per cent, Swan said. The court shouldn't be shut down, but should be expanded to other Manitoba communities, he suggested.

"We know that the drug treatment court has excellent results," he said. "I don't know why the federal government wouldn't simply confirm this is now a permanent fixture in our justice system."

The Justice Department wouldn't provide anyone to comment. Spokeswoman Carole Saindon would only say in an email that "discussions between officials at the Manitoba Department of Justice and Justice Canada on this issue are ongoing."

"We have nothing more to add," she wrote when pressed for further details.

Associate Chief Judge John Guy, who has been with the court since it opened in 2006, said it is in limbo without long-term funding. The lack of certainty makes it harder to operate since the court can't hire people permanently, he said.

"It always causes some concern when you don't know whether the money is going to be forthcoming in the future. If we could get longer-term funding, it would help the program, the participants and everyone associated with it."

The court makes a lot of sense, especially considering the federal government brought in mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking, Guy said. The only way people can get reduced sentences under the new law is if they get into a proven drug treatment program.

Funding drug treatment court is a lot cheaper than housing inmates in a federal penitentiary, he added.

"We think there is a business plan to be made. If they go into this program, you don't have to keep many people out of the penitentiary to make the program pay for itself."