The State government’s decision to close the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court has sparked interest from local community groups, who see an urgent need for a program to replace the Court.
The Youth Drug Court diverted young offenders into counselling and rehabilitation programs instead of sending them to gaol. Successful graduates of the programs were given a reduced custodial sentence or kept out of the prison system completely.
As part of their law reform work, the Illawarra Legal Centre is researching alternative diversionary programs to replace the Court.
Community Legal Education Worker at the Centre Sharron Callaghan said they are considering “the implications of the Court’s closure” for young people in the Illawarra and “possible alternatives”.
Fourth year University of Wollongong law student Ashley Mumford has been working in collaboration with the Legal Centre on the research project. Mumford is studying a combined Bachelor of Laws and Journalism and is undertaking a placement at the Centre as part of his subject requirements.
“Between 20 and 30 young offenders were graduating from the program each year. Now that the Court has closed, there are no targeted drug and alcohol treatment programs for youth,” Mumford explained.
The main alternative being considered by the Centre is the Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment (MERIT) program, which is currently restricted to adults. The MERIT program refers defendants into voluntary rehabilitation as part of the bail process, and magistrates take participation in treatment into account during sentencing.
“My project is focussed on sending a submission to the Attorney-General that this program be available to minors,” Mumford said.
The youth merit program will be the main alternative suggested in Mumford’s submission but he is also looking further afield.
However finding further alternatives is proving difficult.
“We want a new program that has a live-in treatment program like the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court and such programs are hard to come by in the Illawarra region,” Mumford explained.