The arrest referral scheme can work
The Minister for Justice has just published a document for public consultation on the so-called arrest referral scheme for first-time offenders charged with drug possession.
Under the scheme, first-time drug users arrested for simple possession will be able to avoid going to court by opting for a process aimed at steering them away from addiction and criminality. More importantly, drug users would be given the help they needed immediately.
The proposal follows recommendations made by the National Commission on the Abuse of Drugs, Alcohol and Other Dependencies.
Under the scheme, once a person has been arrested for drug possession for personal use, the police would carry out a background check. If it transpires that the person did not have previous drug convictions, the police would summon an arrest referral officer to explain that the arrested person has two options: either to face court charges or join the referral scheme.
If s/he opts for the referral scheme instead of being taken to court with the risk of being sentenced and named publicly with all the consequences that might have, the arrested person would be allowed to admit to drug possession before an “extra-judicial body”, made up of a chairman and two specialists, that would serve as a Drugs Court. This body would then impose conditions that could include drug counselling, supervision, community service or regular urine tests. Also, the arrest referral officer would ensure that the offender follows the body’s decisions. Failure to obey would risk criminal action and arraignment in court.
This new scheme could mean that about 150 cases of simple drug possession offenders a year will be dealt with in this way instead of finding themselves in the court liable to a sentence of up to a year’s imprisonment if found guilty. Most of these cases involve young people.
The number of pending drug offences before the Magistrates’ Court have continued to rise. Whereas in 1999 the number of cases pending stood at 70, this increased to 655 by July last year. It is clear, therefore, that the introduction of the new scheme would ease the pressure on the courts.
More importantly, however, the arrest referral scheme and the introduction of an extra-judicial body to administer it is an imaginative and enterprising initiative aimed not only at easing the workload on the creaking machinery of justice but also at demonstrating an enlightened approach to a social problem mostly affecting people under the age of 30.
As Mgr Victor Grech, who leads Caritas, the Church’s arm that reaches out to drug addicts, said a few months ago “We do not think that punishment and prison are the best measures for improving the behaviour of these young people, except in cases where the person would be a huge risk to society, such as drug trafficking and organised crime”.
The main thrust of such an approach is to try to safeguard the welfare of youths who have strayed and for a balance to be struck between their need to reform to become well-behaved citizens and those of society. A criminal record or being imprisoned is not necessarily the answer to those who are experimenting with drugs or are addicted to them. As Caritas said, “Youths seeking treatment are not criminals but people who need care”.
A properly structured process of justice backed by effective early guidance and rehabilitation, as is now being proposed for first-time offenders, would seem to offer the best way of protecting both the public and the addict.