Recovery-Oriented Systems of Care (AB)

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Alberta’s person-centred approach addresses more than an individual’s mental health and addiction challenges. It’s about improving their quality of life by supporting balance and healing in all aspects of their health and wellness. The Alberta model is based on successful practices seen around the world.

The Promising Practices podcast is an initiative of Canada’s Premiers. The aim is to share promising practices that are underway in each province and territory with respect to mental health and addictions.

Learn more about Alberta’s vision for addiction and mental health care, as well as some key initiatives the province is undertaking to support those who need this care. We are also going to hear from some individuals on the front lines who deliver those services…and an individual in recovery from addiction who has accessed those services for himself, and who now helps others on their journey to recovery.

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Listen at 25:11mins

Matthew Reid: Hello. My name is Matthew Reid and for the last year I’ve been working on the Government of Alberta’s Drug Treatment Courts Program as the director of the courts expansion. As a former probation officer involved in the Calgary drug treatment court, I’ve seen the impact drug addiction has on individuals, families and communities, and the associated cost of the crime that stems from addiction. I’ve also seen the positive impact drug treatment courts can have on participants and the opportunity for healing and reconciliation that the programs offer.

Drug treatment courts are an evidence-based practice offering a fair, firm and compassionate approach to dealing with addictions and effectively addressing the underlying causes of drug-driven crime. Internationally, drug treatment courts are established and fixed entities following set standards and principles in their operation, which have been proven effective for over 30 years. They use a non-adversarial court process to hold participants accountable for their criminal behavior, as well as providing individualized drug treatment programming.

These multi-disciplinary courts involve judges, federal and provincial prosecution services, court services, probation, police, legal aid, duty counsel, and community treatment and service providers. Drug treatment courts help offenders break the cycle of criminal behavior driven by their drug addiction through drug treatment programming and behavioral interventions. Participants facing serious jail time for drug-driven offenses are provided a chance to avoid a jail sentence by completing this program. They’re held accountable through judicial supervision, frequent and random drug testing, and the use of sanctions and rewards. Participants are supported by a team of professionals including addiction, mental health and corrections professionals who tailor treatment programs and interventions to participant needs.

A participant’s journey through drug treatment court includes intensive drug treatment, ongoing relapse prevention, mental health programming, medical supports, housing and employment assistance, and life skills training. These supports are provided in addition to interventions that target participant criminal attitudes and behavior. It’s important to note that a drug treatment court isn’t simply about sending a participant to drug treatment.

The program’s success lies in its ability to address addiction and criminal behavior as separate yet connected issues. When drug treatment courts follow the established principles and standards, their ability to address the factors that lead to addiction and repeat criminal behavior is quite high. In Alberta, our first drug treatment courts started in 2005 in Edmonton, and the second one opened in Calgary in 2007. Both courts adhere closely to these principles and best practices and are considered the gold standard. Since their inception, they reported that 70% of their graduates remained crime free after program completion. In general, drug treatment court participants report decreased levels of addiction risk, whether they graduate the program or not. And those who don’t graduate leave the program at lower risk to fall back into addiction and reoffend.

Drug treatment courts demonstrate a significant social return on investment. What I mean by this is for every dollar invested in drug treatment courts, we see significant social benefits, both for the individuals involved in the program and the wider community. As an example, the Calgary drug treatment court estimates that their program can help avoid up to $7 million dollars annually in potential incarceration costs. Additionally, the Calgary drug treatment court estimates that their program saves their community at least $15 million per year in stolen goods alone.

Despite the successes, drug treatment courts can face challenges establishing themselves. Historically, new drug treatment courts rise slowly through grassroots initiatives in motivated communities. Once operating, drug treatment courts often struggle to find consistent support and stable operating funding, because of their defined structure, they require certain local support services to be in place. Without these services, drug treatment courts can fail. This can have an impact on small communities, which may lack the crucial support services needed for the drug treatment courts to operate. It is with these successes and challenges in mind that Alberta has built a program to bring drug treatment courts to rural and small remote communities.

These drug treatment courts will become a part of the provincial recovery-oriented system of care that the Government of Alberta is transitioning to. In 2019, the Government of Alberta committed $20 million over four years to create Canada’s first Provincial Drug Treatment Court Program that is based on consistent standards and principles. The program expands drug treatment court services in a planned and systematic way, and is opening five new drug treatment courts to serve rural and remote communities outside of Edmonton and Calgary and provides funding and support to ensure that they operate effectively.

Our provincial program is assisted by a member of the drug treatment court community, provides guidance in the development of the new courts, and works with communities and stakeholders to educate and train members on their roles within the programs. As part of the expansion plan, we’ve created a provincial framework that establishes the standards and principles that drug treatment courts in Alberta must follow. This framework also contains a provincial drug treatment court model based on the existing Calgary and Edmonton programs. This model provides a base design for new drug treatment courts to use that is customizable to each community’s needs.

Oversight is also part of the provincial program and is guided by a robust evaluation process created to assess the ongoing outcomes of the drug treatment courts and enhance their program delivery. The provincial expansion aims to increase access to drug treatment court services across the province, particularly in rural and remote areas.

In the first phase of our expansion, we doubled the capacity of the Calgary and Edmonton drug treatment courts from 20 to 40 participants served per year each. In phase two, we began by evaluating the needs and readiness of the communities for new drug treatment courts. We saw a lot of need throughout the province but are initially focusing on the communities that have the existing structures and services to support a drug treatment court.

So far, we’ve opened two new courts over the past year: the Lethbridge drug treatment court opened last November, the first to serve communities outside of Calgary and Edmonton; the Medicine Hat drug treatment court opened this January, and now both courts are already operating with active participants. Our aim is to have the three remaining new drug treatment courts up and running by mid-2022, including Red Deer, which was announced last year as well as two other locations that we are considering. In the final phase of the expansion, we’ll examine how drug treatment court services can be delivered to even smaller communities in rural regions and remote parts of Alberta, which may lack the necessary services to support a traditional full-scale drug treatment court.

This provincial project requires substantial work from the drug treatment court stakeholders, and we’re grateful for the outstanding support we’ve received so far from our judiciary, Public Prosecution Services of Canada, Legal Aid Alberta, Justice and Solicitor General ministry, Mental Health and Addictions ministry and Alberta Health Services. Local communities have been very supportive as well, and we’ve had great interest from city councils, community groups and local addictions and justice agencies. Their support is vital to the expansion and continuing success of the drug treatment courts, and the participants, and to keeping our communities safe and improving the lives of Albertans.

- Matthew Reid (CDTC Director of Drug Treatment Court Expansion)