From the Editorial in The Times of Malta: Appeals made some time ago by experts from the Oasi Foundation in Gozo and the state-owned Sedqa agency urging the government to set up a specialist drug court to help non-violent drug offenders rehabilitate themselves deserve the utmost consideration.
It is a sad reality that more and more people, especially the young are getting ensnared by addictions such as gambling, alcohol and drugs. Dependence leads to financial difficulties, which, in turn, and too often pave the way to petty crime and worse.
Undoubtedly, justice demands that offenders cannot get off scot-free. Yet, experience shows that the present penal system is ineffective and often counter-productive. Incarceration is costly in more ways than one, even if one were to ignore the fact that drug addiction in prison is rife. Imprisonment is just a punishment. Too often it is not a deterrent, let alone a route for reintegrating offenders into society.
The prison system works only as long as the criminal is behind bars. On re-insertion into society, many relapse again into addiction and crime. With a prison becoming a "college of crime", this happens with a vengeance. Both the offenders and society lose out.
Sedqa clinical director George Grech illustrated the futility of the situation by pointing out that there are situations where a person who was rehabilitated and back on track in society had to face a case in court for an offence that had occurred years earlier.
The concept of a specialist drug court is an overdue step in a new direction that makes a clear distinction between retributive justice that just focuses on punishing an offender and restorative justice that has a deeper purpose. Restorative justice recognises that a criminal offence causes a wound in society and the purpose of the penal process is to heal the breach, redress matters and restore good relationships. Restorative justice is based on the fundamental Christian principle that believes in redemption based on awareness, penance and reconciliation.
Drug courts abroad respect this principle and operate under a very specific framework that combines intensive judicial supervision, mandatory drug testing, escalating sanctions and treatment to help substance abusing offenders break the cycle of addiction and the crime that accompanies it.
In other words, the setting up of such a court, besides being coupled with addiction rehabilitation systems that are already in place, involves restitution programmes. These programmes are usually fashioned on schemes where the offender is required to make restitution to the victim, or if not the case, to the community. The adoption of specialist drug courts confirms the reality that this new method in criminal justice makes sense at all levels. Besides being grounded on Christian principles and common sense, it is also cost-effective in the long term.
Its successful implementation would not only reap benefits in the handling of drug addicts but could also revolutionise the way society deals with crime and punishment.
We are not inventing the wheel. Elsewhere, public-spirited people have already examined the underlying principles and worked out such schemes in their communities and with success.
It is in our country's interest that we take the initiative and provide the necessary resources to make restorative justice work as effectively as possible.