12/23/2015 11:10 EST | Updated 12/23/2016 05:12 EST

Court Program For Drug Addicts Helping Mostly White Males, Report Finds

The program aims to stop the "revolving door" of addiction and crime.

In this Nov. 30, 2015 photo, an inmate stands facing the wall as he waits for authorization to walk to his cell inside the Central Prison in Porto Alegre, Brazil. As with many nations in Latin America, the penitentiary system is chaotic and cruel, with violent uprisings across Brazil breaking out frequently as prisoners rebel against horrific conditions. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

A federal court program to divert drug addicts away from prison and into treatment is still not reaching the people it was supposed to help: aboriginals, women and youth.

A new evaluation says the program is largely helping white males over the age of 30, the same skewed population a previous assessment warned about six years ago.

Drug treatment courts "continue to experience difficulties … attracting women, aboriginal people, other visible minorities and youth into the program, and retaining them once they have entered it," says a recently released report.

"Caucasians, men, and individuals over 30 still represent the majority of … participants."

Court programs that aim to divert addicts out of prison and into treatment have a hard time attracting women, aboriginal people, and other visible minorities. (Getty Images)

The finding is part of an otherwise positive report on the Drug Treatment Court Funding Program, under which Justice Canada spends $3.6 million annually for a diversionary system to stop the "revolving door" of addiction and crime.

A five-year evaluation posted earlier this month found that the program, then offered in six cities, is generally effective in reducing drug use and criminal recidivism, and is a much cheaper alternative to imprisonment, with net savings of up to 88 per cent.

Repeats 2009 warning

Under the program, defence lawyers and Crown prosecutors nominate drug-addicted offenders for treatment that can last a year or more. The charged person must plead guilty, abide by a host of conditions that include regular urine tests for illicit drugs, and attend counselling.

The programs have an average "graduation" rate of 27 per cent, but even non-graduates were found to have cut their drug use and had fewer drug-related offences afterwards. Graduates must be drug-free, have proper housing, as well as a job or be enrolled in school.

"Drug courts work. They help build communities. People do change."

The report repeated the warning of a 2009 evaluation, however, that the prime target groups of aboriginals, women and youth were still not getting into the programs, and that "individuals with little prior criminal history" were being served.

Drug courts were pioneered in Florida in 1989, and now number about 2,100 across the United States. Britain, Ireland, Australia and others also have them. In Canada, the first court was set up in Toronto in 1998, and there are now a handful in major cities.

"Drug courts work," says Ruth Mayhew, manager of drug-court treatment at Ottawa's Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, where graduation rates exceed 50 per cent. "They help build communities. People do change."

The evaluation called on Justice Canada to work more closely with the courts and provinces to ensure "they serve the optimal target population." And department spokesman Andrew Gowling says officials are doing just that, "to identify best practices … including reaching vulnerable populations such as youth, aboriginals and women."

At the same time, Rideauwood and other treatment centres are losing funding by stealth, as Justice Canada maintains the program's $3.6-million national budget but spreads the money across more facilities, even as caseloads everywhere are rising.

Net budget cut

The department has signed new three-year agreements with six provinces and two territories, effective April 1, 2015, and hopes to sign up the remainder soon under a new policy of dealing only with provincial and territorial governments, rather than funding individual drug-treatment court facilities.

"The money issue is across the board. They've now downloaded that problem on the provinces."

But the net effect is a budget cut — to $400,000 a year at Rideauwood, for example, from the $550,000 they had been receiving just five years ago. Toronto's funding was similarly chopped, to $600,000 from $750,000.

Altogether, Ontario now is getting just $1 million annually, down substantially from the $1.7 million the two facilities in Ottawa and Toronto received in 2014-2015.

"It's making things way more challenged," says Mayhew. Adds her colleague, retiring executive-director Paul Welsh: "The money issue is across the board. They've now downloaded that problem on the provinces."

Asked about the cuts, Gowling said only that "program evaluations concluded that providing the funding to provinces and territories is more efficient and allows for better collaborative opportunities."

One study has estimated the annual social costs of illicit drug use in Canada at $8.2 billion.

Drug Treatment Courts parallel another justice initiative, Mental Health Courts, which began in Toronto in the 1990s to divert offenders with mental health problems away from the criminal justice system and into treatment.

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