There is no-one who cares for my soul. There is no creature loves me, and if I die no one will pity me,’ is surely one of the bitterest cries that can burst from a breaking heart. One of the secrets of the success of the Salvation Army is that the friendless of the world find friends in it. -William Booth
Imagine this: you are alone in your 30’s with a long criminal record. You are also an alcoholic. No matter how many times you have checked yourself into a detoxification program, you still return back to your old alcoholic self. Your ‘alcohol-fuelled’ criminal record is getting longer and longer. You are estranged from all of your family. This time you are facing another conviction with a strong possibility of receiving a custodial (gaol) sentence. Legal Aid has just refused to provide you with representation and you have no money to fund a private lawyer. This is the story of James.
James first approached Salvos Legal in February 2011. Alison, the Program Co-ordinator at the Attorney-General’s “Court Referral of Eligible Defendants Into Treatment” (CREDIT) Program, referred him to us. James was considered to be a hopeless case for a hopeless client, who showed no real remorse and whose future seemed certain to end him up behind bars.
When James walked into our office for the first time, he was a pale looking young man and not in good physical shape. Although James was living in housing commission accommodation and had a low-income job working as a machinist, he did not qualify for Legal Aid. He desperately needed legal representation in court.
As we went through James’s court documents together, it was evident that alcohol was a major contributor to his current and past criminal charges. James had also breached a previous good behaviour bond in addition to his current charges. Due to his criminal record, James was facing the prospect of a custodial sentence this time.
We had doubts initially as to whether we were able to make a difference in James’s life because there was nothing to satisfy us that he would not simply re-offend. Most importantly, James had many opportunities before the court previously but this time there was very little evidence to suggest that he was going to make any substantial changes in his life.
James knew that he was facing the prospect of a custodial sentence. He said to us that he really believed that this time was the ‘last straw’ for him and that he wanted to change but that he just hadn’t taken any such steps yet. We acknowledged what James was saying but were conscious that talk is cheap and that actions speak much louder than words. We agreed to help James but only on the basis that he accepted responsibility for his actions, addressed the underlying causes of his problems and that was willing to seek change for the better.
The Salvation Army’s 10-month residential drug and alcohol “Bridge” Program was the only chance James had to change his life and avoid ending up dead or serving a lengthy gaol term. If James was to make ongoing positive progress in the Bridge Program, then perhaps the Magistrate would give him a chance to avoid a custodial sentence. James recognised the extent of his addiction and ultimately agreed to become a resident of the Bridge Program. We arranged for his immediate admission to the Program at the only available placement, which was in Canberra. We told James to pack a bag. James agreed.
Unexpectedly, James changed his mind about going to the Program a few days before his admission because he did not want to lose his current NSW Housing accommodation, furniture and his new found job by moving to Canberra. After further thought, James indicated that he saw the 10-month residential program just as if it was another form of gaol for him.
During one of our long conferences, it became apparent that James was going through an intense period of detoxification. His underlying emotions and feelings surfaced and he became quite angry and distressed. James was confident that detox alone would be sufficient and he no longer wished to proceed with the longer term rehabilitation that had been arranged for him to commence in Canberra.
From past experiences, we knew that James’s completion of any short-term detoxification program would be ineffective to address his life-long struggle with alcohol, and in any event it would be unlikely to persuade the court of any true rehabilitation due to his long criminal record of alcohol-related offences.
We sought to address each of the reasons James was putting forward as barriers to him going into the Bridge Program. With the help of the Bridge staff, we responded to James’s concerns by trying to find secure housing for him, and Salvos Legal offered to pay for the storage of his furniture in order to secure the long-term participation of James in the Program in Canberra. Finally, James gave up arguing with us and agreed to move to Canberra to start his recovery process.
James’s case involved a racially motivated act of threatened violence against a woman. It was a disgusting and cowardly act that he acknowledged was inexcusable. Our means and merits test means that as a private law firm we can elect which cases we are able to support. For James, we saw the opportunity to intervene to change his whole approach to women and to certain cultures, by addressing his case holistically through the assistance of the Bridge Program and its army of clinical experts. Whilst the offence was obviously one which we could not support, the opportunity to help change James from being someone communities are troubled by, into someone that participates meaningfully and positively, was too important for us to refuse.
James agreed to plead guilty and we then approached the court to seek a three-month adjournment for James’s final sentencing. In meantime, James was making very positive progress in the Bridge Program. During our follow-up telephone conversations, James sounded happier and had a lot to share about his experiences and how profoundly he understood the harm he had caused and how that had changed him. He told us that he was now motivated to become a new person. We were delighted to hear when James called us to say that he was over 90 days’ sober.
We saw James again shortly before his sentencing in July 2011. He smiled a lot more and looked like a new man, physically. We could see his high spirit as he spoke to us with a sense of insight and clarity. James’s recently reunited family in Sydney was there to support him on the day of his sentencing. James had very good progress reports from his clinicians, especially from the CREDIT Program Co-ordinator, in support of a sentencing option which avoided full-time gaol.
Luke Geary of Salvos Legal represented James in court on that day and successfully persuaded the Magistrate to allow James to complete the Bridge Program. As the result of the successful submission, James received a 2-year good behaviour bond instead of a custodial sentence. It goes without saying how grateful James and his family were for the assistance of Salvos Legal in his case and the wider Salvation Army in his life.
James remained in Canberra to complete the Bridge Program for a further 7 months after his sentencing. Following completion of the Bridge Program, James was employed by that service to assist others coming through the recovery process. He has since gone back to TAFE to become a chef and now works full-time in a Bakery. Previously illiterate, James has started reading and writing classes and can now communicate independently in writing. James has reconnected with his Sydney family and has united with other family members he was previously estranged with, who now all live in Canberra. He sees them every week and has a positive relationship with his nieces and nephews, as well as all of the rest of his family, for the first time in his life.
James has remained sober since commencing the Bridge Program, more than 18 months ago. James proudly tells his story (the good parts and the bad) regularly to men in situations of addiction, in the hope that they too will make the changes in their lives like he has in his.
We are grateful to have played a part in James’s recovery and are very proud to have him as a friend of ours.