When Jason first came to us he had been charged with driving whilst under the influence of a drug. He had also breached three good behaviour bonds, which he was serving for previous break and enter offences.
Jason had started experimenting with heroin at the age of 15. A few years later he was charged and convicted for what would be the first of many drug related offences. Now, at 31 Jason was trying to make changes in his life but he wasn’t getting very far.
Jason was referred to us by the Court Referral of Eligible Defendant’s into Treatment (CREDIT) Program. The program, which is currently being trialled at Tamworth and Burwood Local Courts, aims to give those who have been charged with a crime in the Local Court support to access a wide range of treatment, programs and services in order to assist them and reduce their chance of reoffending.
The aims of CREDIT are very much in line with those of Salvos Legal Humanitarian, and from time to time we take on clients who are participating in the program. As Jason was found to be ineligible for Legal Aid and could not afford to pay for a solicitor; absent our assistance, Jason was almost a certainty at going to gaol so we agreed to represent him in his case for free so long as he continued with his drug rehabilitation.
Jason, fatherless from a young age, told us that he got in with the wrong crowd as a teenager. He quickly developed a heroin addiction that he couldn’t afford to maintain. He resorted to breaking into shops and homes and stealing goods to fund his addiction. He also experimented with cocaine and speed. In his early twenties Jason was literally stabbed in the back by a friend and developed high level anxiety disorders.
At the time of his offence Jason was trying to get himself off the drugs and turn his life around. However, he was doing this with very little support or success.
He had been clean from heroin for the past few years and was instead taking buprenorphine as part of a drug rehabilitation program. Buprenorphine is a morphine derivative that has a milder opioid effect than methadone. It can be used to replace cravings and withdrawal symptoms. The problem is, Jason wasn’t happy being on the buprenorphine and was reducing himself off it to try and achieve abstinence, without the support of his doctor. He was on a 16mg dose but was spitting out 12mg, effectively only leaving him with a 4mg dose.
In his desperation to be free from addiction Jason had made himself very unwell. When he first entered the CREDIT program he was pale, drowsy and sweating profusely. The withdrawal symptoms left him unable to maintain any kind of normal lifestyle.
A few months before his driving offence Jason had left his job as a courier because he felt so unwell. In fact, he even told us that he didn’t think it was safe for him to be driving in his current condition and he had decided he should leave. This approach to driving didn’t appear to fit with a man who had driven along the highway, swerving in and out of traffic until he was pulled over by police, practically asleep at the wheel.
The drug test showed that Jason had the drug Xanax and a small amount of speed in his system. Xanax is a prescription medication for those with severe anxiety disorders. Jason said that this had never had an effect on his driving before. He explained that he had taken speed about two days earlier in order to help alleviate his withdrawals. He hadn’t thought it would still be in his system. Jason was also having trouble sleeping, and hadn’t slept for about three days before the offence.
Jason pleaded guilty to the offence and the matter was adjourned so that he could complete the CREDIT program. Jason’s ongoing participation in that program required intervention with a high-intensity team of drug and mental health professionals, working together to deal with the complex issues that had led to Jason’s drug dependency.
Jason appeared at court on the day of his sentence, nervous but clean shaven, well dressed and looking remarkably healthier and more alert than the man we had first met. His wife came with him to show her support for the progress he was making.
However, when it came time for Jason to be sentenced the Magistrate expressed concerns about the fact that Jason had committed an offence whilst he was serving three good behaviour bonds. A breach of a good behaviour bond meant that as well as being sentenced for his driving offence, the Magistrate may also choose to re-sentence Jason in relation to the other offences. If the Magistrate didn’t believe Jason was making genuine efforts to turn his life around, gaol was a distinct possibility. In the end the matter was adjourned so that the Magistrate could read the files relating to Jason’ previous charges and consider the matter further.
Two weeks later we went to the Local Court again with Jason in order to make submissions before his sentencing. Jason had said he didn’t know anyone who could write him a letter of reference, so all we had in his support was a report from CREDIT saying he had successfully completed the program. It turned out this was enough. We told the Magistrate of a man who, despite his considerable criminal history and drug use, was now making a real effort to address his addiction. Previously he had been doing it alone. Now, he had outside coordinated assistance. Jason had completed the CREDIT Program, was attending a drug rehabilitation clinic, had joined Narcotics Anonymous and was regularly seeing a psychologist for his drug dependency and psychosis.
The Magistrate noted that CREDIT had provided Jason with an extremely positive report and that he seemed to have done very well with the program. She told Jason he was very close to going to gaol. However, she suspended his licence for six months (the minimum suspension you can get for this type of offence) and gave him a 12 month good behaviour bond. In relation to his existing three bonds, the Magistrate decided to take no action. This meant the bonds still continued to apply but Jason was not given a more serious sentence for the offences. The Magistrate said that Jason appeared to be at a cross roads in his life. Her encouragement was to remain on the path he was now on.
Speaking with Jason after court, both he and his wife were grateful for the chance Jason had been given to start again. They were hopeful that the outcome of Jason’s case would mark the beginning of a new stage in his life; one where abstinence from drugs was a certainty rather than a relentless struggle.
Our assistance meant that Jason can continue to access treatment and support within the community rather than serving a custodial sentence. He is hopeful he will be free from the buprenorphine by the end of the year. The path he is on may not be a smooth one but for the first time in his life there are now people walking alongside him to catch him when he stumbles, and make sure he doesn’t fall.