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Youth Drug and Alcohol Court Essay

* Written for my Crime, Delinquency and Social Welfare unit for my Bachelor of Criminal Justice (Police) in 2011.


In this article, I attempt to examine the perceptions of the New South Wales’ Youth Drug and Alcohol Court, outlining the potential advantages and disadvantages. Breaking free from the traditional cautionary and sentencing options available from the Children’s’ Court, the concept of a Drug Court has been influenced by American precedents (Turner, 2006: 2). There appears to be an increasing interest in rehabilitation over punishment, with an increasing amount of research into new implementations and effective techniques used to cure the offender of their negative traits.


Although the Youth Drug Court is also operating in Western Australia, I will focus this paper primarily on New South Wales. The program is currently limited to Western and South Western Sydney, disadvantaged rural communities that could potentially benefit from its positive effects more so than urban societies. There are no other State or Territory jurisdictions implementing the Youth Drug Court, but many have chosen to operate this facility for adult offenders (Turner, 2006: 3).


I have included brief information on how the Youth Drug Court operates, supporting it with research on the effects it has on the youth offending community. It is difficult to research the full impact this scheme offers due to the lack of evaluations and journal articles, as it is still considered a recent development.



The New South Wales Youth Drug and Alcohol Courts have been established in an attempt to divert young offenders from incarceration and, instead, encourage rehabilitation to promote a healthy lifestyle. The Drug and Alcohol Court was established in July 2000 as a result of the NSW Government Drug Summit held the year before. It aims to target young offenders between the ages of fourteen and eighteen living in Western and South Western Sydney (“Youth Drug & Alcohol Court (NSW Police)” 2008) who have serious alcohol or drug problems, have pleaded guilty to an offence in the Children’s Court, are not eligible for diversionary options such as a caution or conferencing and are likely to be sentenced to a term of imprisonment (Cuneen et al, 2010: 270). The policy works under the Bail Act 1978 and Young Offenders Act 1997.


The young offenders are given tailored treatment programs which generally last six months but can be extended up to a period of twelve months. It includes assistance with a support worker and involves intensive treatment, court appointments and help with health, housing and educational needs (“Youth Drug & Alcohol Court (NSW Police)” 2008). Upon successful completion, the offender may be able to avoid a sentence of incarceration and instead receive a community order. If failing the program, the young person returns to the court to be re-sentenced.


Research and Evidence

There have been very few evaluations of the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court (YDAC), but the Attorney General conducted an assessment in 2002. Initially, during its first two years of operation, the court received 164 referrals, with 46% of youth accepted into the program and 39% graduating (Eardley et al., 2004: 6). Initially, the program was based on a voluntary intake, but the last few years have seen Magistrates refer people to the YDAC with or without their consent (Hannam, 2009). For some youths, participating in the program was seen as an easy way to stay out of custody, but the intensity of the scheme was unexpected (Eardley et al., 2004: 7), which may explain the low graduation rate.


It appears to be difficult to determine whether the drug and alcohol program is more successful than other sentencing options, but it was found to have a significant impact on the participants, and overall, the program was more cost effective than resorting to incarceration (Eardley et al. 2004: 20). Before the implementation of the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court, there were few alternatives or rehabilitative schemes to combat crime influenced by substance and alcohol abuse.


Although the program initially planned to target a fair amount of girls, only a small number were accepted, and it was found that the likelihood of successfully completing the program was considerably less than it was for boys (Eardley et al., 2004: 188). It was reported that the majority of treatment programs target male offenders, and, as a result, a large proportion of boys inhabit the juvenile justice system. Although girls have been said to be able to appreciate the relevance of such schemes, extra curriculum such as broader factors concerning body image, self-esteem and emotional difficulties is important to improve the benefits for girls (Kenny, 2009), which could potentially motivate young female offenders seeking such services.


It was found that the mental health of those who participated in the program, particularly girls and those who had graduated, had shown some form of improvement (Eardley et al., 2004: 188). Many of the other drug programs on offer appear to be less successful for indigenous youth than the Drug Court, which was seen as successful and represents “one of the few good news stories for young indigenous offenders” (Hannam, 2009). Although research at this stage has been fairly minimal, the Drug Court was seen to have the effect of “an important, positive impact on the lives of many of those participating” (Eardley et al, 2004: 196) and proved to be “more effective than conventional sanctions in reducing the risk of recidivism among offenders whose crime is drug-related” (Weatherburn et al, 2008: 12). It was said that the rates of re-offending were much lower and that young offenders were more motivated to reduce their drug use (Eardley et al. 2004: 7).


A limitation to the program is the serving of clients residing in Sydney metropolitan regions rather than rural areas, despite the interconnectedness of rural communities. It was found that “harmful alcohol use among young offenders is disproportionately higher in rural areas than urban societies” (Kenny, 2009). These statistics have been confirmed in similar American surveys with the Centre on Addictions and Substance Abuse reporting rural adolescents are 29% more likely to drink than their urban counterparts and 70% more likely to report being drunk (2000). “Rural life offers increased peer pressure, boredom and little leisure activities” (Kenny, 2009).


In an Australian survey, 16% of rural youth engaged in high-risk drinking with the typical amount of alcohol consumed in one sitting being equivalent to four to six standard drinks (Patterson, 1999) compared with 9% alcohol consumption of urban youth. Ironically, rural Australians have one of the highest rates of suicide in the world (Patterson, 1999). Recruitment of staff to rural communities has always been difficult. The turnover is high and teams are often understaffed (Padgin, 1998). The success rate of the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court to rural areas may see considerable better results than in urban regions due to the lack of programs and incentives to combat the issue of substance abuse and the involvement of crime.


Conduct disorder and the prevalence of childhood trauma have been reported to contribute to 50% of young offenders being under the influence of substances during the commission of their crime (Kenny & Nelson, 2008). The drug and alcohol program consists of a variety of counselling, including group and one-on-one sessions, encouragement to participate in sporting activities, camping trips and role-playing to understand the impact of drug behaviour on victims. It enables the young offenders to build their self-confidence and understand how to have a good time without relying on drugs. The long-term effect of the given intensive support can strengthen their mental state and discipline, enabling the youth to prevent past issues from taking control over their lives at the same time as it equips them with applicable skills.


Analysing the Research

 A variety of studies involving juvenile offenders has found a strong correlation with substance abuse. In a study involving 292 youths incarcerated at nine New South Wales detention facilities, participants were questioned about their drug and alcohol consumption. The survey revealed that a quarter had used substances from nine or more drug groups. Alcohol was used by 95% of the cohorts, 87% used cannabis and 26% used opioids (Hando, 1997). It is evident that the use of drugs plays a large part in youth crime, and the recognition of only a quarter abusing drug and alcohol appears to be surprisingly minimal.


The emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment appears to be increasing. Although court related programs have always been in existence, the establishment of the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court increases the avenues for treatment more than ever. In R v Yorkshire (1988) No. 7169, it was stated that “the reformation of the (child) offender is always important, if not the dominant consideration” (R v Yorkshire, 1988).


It is not surprising that mental illness plays a role in young offenders, particularly with the accompanying background of poverty, transitional environments and poor parenting. An improvement of the mental health of some participants who successfully graduate from the drug program is an extra bonus. The combination of intensive support groups, counselling and a self-improvement focus appears to have a profound effect compared to traditional court sentencing options.


Although many young offenders have applied to take part in the program, considerably few are admitted, and the rate of intake is irregular (Eardley et al., 2004: 24). With an increased injection of funding and a focus on rehabilitative behaviour, it is possible the success rate would increase due to the intensive support that is non-existent in other court orders and programs. It has been found to be cheaper to admit youth into this scheme rather than to incarcerate them in a youth detention facility. In addition, incarceration appears to have no positive effects on recidivism as their issues are not addressed and dealt with appropriately.


Rural communities need to focus more attention on tackling substance abuse, which has been seen as playing a role in high suicide rates. Due to the lack of resources and programs in these areas, appropriate issues are not tackled and addressed.  It seems that community involvement in programs such as the Drug Court would be advantageous. Adaptations would be necessary to make it operable in rural areas due to the changing issues and environments evident in urban settings. In addition, the success rate of indigenous participants has been celebrated, a fair improvement over traditional programs that have failed to address the appropriate issues.



The Youth Drug and Alcohol Court is currently limited in operation to New South Wales and Western Australia, but its proven success should be extended to other States and Territories. The adult equivalent is currently in existence in all States (but not Territories) and has also noted considerable success.


Previously, juvenile offenders have been sentenced to periods of incarceration and given sentencing options over rehabilitative alternatives. This has changed to show more emphasis on personal development in an effort to decrease the recidivism rate and encourage young offenders to improve their lives. During these tender years of development, the intensive support given in the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court has proven to give them self-confidence and equip them with the appropriate and necessary skills and education.


The improvement of implementations to alter the behaviour of offenders has seen a considerable decrease in the rate of recidivism, which cannot be said for the previous traditional court outcomes and options. In time, it is expected the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court will extend its services to rural areas and other States and Territories and will continue to impact the recidivism rates that are currently proving difficult to tackle. In addition to mental illnesses, conduct disorders and childhood traumas, the counselling and physical activities that come with the drug and alcohol program appear to be successful, the motivation emerging from incentives provided by the program.



Centre on Addictions and Substance Abuse. (2000). “No place to hide: Substance abuse in midsize cities and rural America”. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kenny, D. T., & Nelson, P. K. (2008). “Young offenders on community orders: Health, welfare and criminogenic needs”. Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press.

Kenny, D. T. (2009). “Predictors of high-risk alcohol consumption in young offenders on community orders: Policy and treatment implications”. Psychology, public policy, and law, 15(1), p. 54.

Eardley, T., McNab, J., Fisher, K., & Kozlina, S. (2004). “Evaluation of the New South Wales Youth Drug Court Pilot Program”. Kensington, Australia: University of New South Wales, Social Policy Research Centre.

Hando, J. (1997). “Risky drug practices and treatment needs of youth detained in New South Wales Juvenile Justice Centres”. Drug and alcohol review, 16 (2), p: 137.

Hannam, H. (2009). “The Youth Drug and Alcohol Court: An Alternative to Custody”. Indigenous law bulletin, 7(13), p. 12.

Padgin F. (1998). “Strategic Plan for Staff Development and Support”. Rural and Remote Mental Health Service of South Australia, Adelaide.

Patterson, I. (1999). “Nothing to do. The relationship between ‘leisure boredom' and alcohol and drug addiction: is there a link to youth suicide in rural Australia?” Youth studies Australia, 18(2), p. 24.

R v Yorkshire. 1988. No. 7169

Turner, S. (2006). “The New South Wales Youth Drug & Alcohol Court Program: Interagency Partnerships in Action”. NSW Juvenile Justice.

Youth Drug & Alcohol Court (NSW Police). (2008). Retrieved from the NSW Police Web site:

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