By MICHELLE SLATER
Member for Morwell Russell Northe has been campaigning for the state government to establish a specialised drug court in Morwell to rehabilitate and treat offenders with a drug dependency.
Mr Northe first raised the issue in Parliament last year, but is renewing his push in light of the success of a drug court in Dandenong, with others being established in Shepparton and Ballarat.
The state government is also setting up a pilot at the County Court in Melbourne.
Mr Northe said there was a “critical need” for the Latrobe Valley to be included in any program expansion, citing the region’s high drug-related crime rates which had tripled in the past decade.
“You can’t arrest your way out of this situation, drug and alcohol addiction is a recognised health issue,” he said.
“There are a lot of addicted people who don’t want to be and if a drug court helps people find a pathway to be healthy, then this should be supported.”
The drug court supervises low-level offenders caught in the cycle of drug and alcohol dependency and substance-related offending, addressing the underlying factors that contribute to offending.
Participants must comply with orders to undertake alcohol and drug counselling, drug testing, and must regularly attend reviews, case management and clinical advisor appointments.
According to state government figures, Dandenong drug court results showed that re-offending in the first year after completing the program dropped by a third.
Mr Northe congratulated the state government for investing in programs such as the Hope Restart Centre in Bairnsdale and a youth rehab centre in Traralgon, with more to be spent on mental health.
However, he said a drug court would provide complementary measures to help support people in their recovery and divert them out of the justice system.
“This should not mean people should not be exonerated for their crimes, yes, they should be punished for their crimes, but they should be helped to get better,” he said.
The call has been backed by a raft of local community organisations, including the Gippsland Primary Health Network, Latrobe Health Advocate and Latrobe Community Health Service.
LCHS drug and alcohol clinical lead Jonathan Fahey described Mr Northe’s push as a “very progressive initiative” for the region.
“These programs will broadly reduce crimes and this is an option we should champion,” Mr Fahey said.
“Establishing a drug court and improving the mental health system indicates governments are looking to alternatives to the war on drugs.”
Gippsland PHN chief executive officer Amanda Proposch also supported the call with an “integrated approach where health and legal issues can be addressed holistically to meet each person’s needs”.
“Addressing underlying issues to break a cycle of offending has the potential to improve the health and wellbeing of many vulnerable people while also improving community safety,” Ms Proposch said.
Attorney- General Jaclyn Symes said in her response to Mr Northe that expanding drug courts would depend on an evaluation of existing and new sites, as well as consultation with communities and key stakeholders
Ms Symes also hoped Mr Northe would “continue to support expansion of the drug court to Latrobe Valley when the next project and funding opportunities arise”.
By MICHELLE SLATER