Alcohol (and other drug use) is commonly linked to people getting themselves in trouble with the law. In many instances, criminal charges have a more enduring impact on people’s lives than a hangover or an incoherent voicemail message on your ex’s phone. This isn’t just for drink driving, but a wide range of behaviours that can bring you into contact with the police.
Drug Diversion programs, provide people charged (or who could be charged by police) with low-level, non-violent drug-related offences the option to avoid criminal sanctions by participating in targetted educational programs. Prioritising education (and, where appropriate, treatment) over blanket punishment, they have been found to provide significant individual and community benefits (Wundersitz, 2007).
In spite of the fact that alcohol is, by far, the most widely consumed drug in Australia (and the most commonly linked to offending), to date, funded Diversion programs are focussed only on illicit drugs. If we are to increase the effectiveness of Diversion programs, we need to include alcohol.
There is an increasing body of Australian and international evidence that demonstrates the benefits of Diversion programs for offenders, the criminal justice system and the general community. Evaluation by the Australian Institute of Criminology (2008) found that, regardless of drug type or peoples’ previous offending history, Diversion programs consistently achieve high rates of program completion; and sustained reduction in participants’ reoffending.
It comes as no surprise that the focus of Diversion programs on early intervention (often occurring after a person’s first contact with the justice system) means that the majority of program participants are young people. In Victoria, the median age for Victorian Diversion participants is 21 (AIC bulletin, 2009). This is representative of Diversion participants nationally.
Australia has been a leader in the development of Diversion programs to increase the breadth of policy responses to alcohol and other drug use. By providing an option for people to receive police ‘cautions’ rather than formal convictions, they reduce the burden on Australia’s courts, both in terms of current caseload and reduce future offending. Program participants are provided with relevant harm reduction information, opportunities to engage with treatment services (if appropriate) and do not have to bear the long-term consequences of having a criminal record.
As anyone who has had a police check when applying for work would know, criminal charges can have a significant impact on people’s lives. This is particularly the case for young people.
UnitingCare ReGen (ReGen) is the lead provider of Victorian Government-funded Diversion programs for cannabis and other illicit substances as well as Drink Driver and Drug Driver education programs for people seeking to regain their licence. In 2010/11, 60 per cent of people referred into these programs were under 25 years. Half of these were under 21.
In 2008, ReGen developed and piloted a two-hour education program in response to the development of new national guidelines regarding low risk drinking, growing community and media concern at binge drinking by young people and the lack of brief interventions targeting alcohol misuse.
Alcohol: Considering Change? is a two-hour education program designed to inform participants’ decision making regarding their use of alcohol. The program does not target dependent drinkers specifically, but instead is designed to meet the information requirements of people with a range of consumption patterns and subsequent harms.
While the program is yet to receive any Government funding, it has become a de facto Diversion program within the Victorian Magistrates’ Court system. In 2011, 85 per cent of all program participants were required to attend as part of their court proceedings. Over half were under 25.
Typically, this group do not identify themselves as having a ‘problem with alcohol’ and would be unlikely to seek out alcohol treatment or education of their own accord. The program evaluation shows that over 90 per cent of participants increased their knowledge of alcohol-related harms and understanding of relevant harm reduction strategies.
This translates into more informed decisions about future drinking and a reduced future incidence of alcohol-related offending. Everybody wins.
So where to from here?
This week, the Victorian Auditor-General’s office released its Effectiveness of Justice Strategies in Preventing and Reducing Alcohol-Related Harm report. This report focuses on efforts to control the supply of alcohol, with no mention of the capacity of Diversion programs to prevent future alcohol-related harms.
For ReGen, the way forward is clear.
While attention needs to be paid to the price and availability of alcohol in Australia, we need a greater emphasis on approaches that engage with risky drinkers and the behaviour associated with drinking.
The value of Diversion programs is well-recognised, as is prevalence of alcohol-related offences within the Justice system. To reduce the harmful effects of alcohol misuse on individuals and families within our community, reduce future need for alcohol and other drug treatment, and reduce the burden on our Justice system, we need to introduce an alcohol Diversion structure, as currently exists for illicit drugs.
As with other Diversion programs, Alcohol: Considering Change? provides a unique opportunity to engage a new demographic and reduce the potential escalation of alcohol-related harms. If funding is allocated for alcohol Diversion, our Alcohol: Considering Change? program provides a readily adaptable model that can be implemented in a range of settings.
Australian Institute of Health & Welfare (2008) 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: First results, Canberra.
Payne J, Kwiatkowski M & Wundersitz J (2008) Police Drug Diversion: A study of criminal offending outcomes, Research & Policy Series, No. 97, Australian Institutes of Criminology Canberra.
Wundersitz J (2007) Criminal justice responses to drug and drug-related offending: Are they working? Technical and Background Paper No. 25. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.