Heroin UK: Court kicking the penal habit

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TO THE "hang `em high" hardliners, the proceedings in Pontefract's Court Three - Britain's first dedicated drugs court - will come as a shock.

Magistrates are dealing with Gillian, 21, found guilty for a second time of possessing heroin. But there is no cold and distant dispensation of harsh punishments. The presiding panel of three, chaired by Mary Burns, is cooing over pictures of Gillian's baby son.

Pontefract, in West Yorkshire, is an unlikely setting for a revolution in criminal justice. But amid widespread recognition that rising drug abuse - and the associated explosion in crime - has overwhelmed the existing system, that is just what may be happening here.

It is almost a year since STEP (the Substance misuse Treatment Enforcement Programme) was introduced in Pontefract and Wakefield as an alternative to other sentences, including prison. It was supported by the former local chief constable, Keith Hellawell, - now Britain's "Drugs Tsar" - who had been impressed by United States drugs courts.

Gillian is one of 66 addicts on the scheme. Most have been hooked on heroin. This is her sixth monthly review, in private, before the same magistrates, who have handled her casesince she was sentenced.

It is too early for a definitive evaluation of the controversial scheme which might lead to its expansion. But Gillian's life has certainly turned around. The magistrates beam at the woman they call "STEP's star". Her regular urine sample has again tested clear.

She is off the methadone which aided her withdrawal, and on some weaker medication. Reports from the social workers, doctors and probation officers are glowing.

Outside court, Gillian, a blonde and vivacious young woman, describes the years when heroin consumed her.

"I started taking it at weekends," she said. "Soon it was several times a day."

She believes that she never looked like an addict. But Mrs Burns remembers a sickly girl. "When she came here she was pregnant, dark under the eyes and deathly pale. She kept her head down and didn't smile."

Gillian believes that her baby - not STEP - has been the major incentive to stay clean. But she clearly basks in the magistrates' praise, and the scheme can only be helping.

However, the panel can also be tough. After Gillian, John, 24, is up for his monthly review. He arrives cadaverous, eyelids drooping, with unlikely excuses for why he has failed to keep recent appointments. He has a pounds 40-a-day habit, funded by shoplifting, and has not picked up his methadone prescription for days. The magistrates listen stony-faced to the latest in a line of non-compliances.

In the first few months, addicts' lapses are tolerated. But John is running out of chances. He is warned that he will soon be in breach of the scheme and back in court for alternative sentencing. "I think it's show time," said one of the magistrates, Philip Booth, sternly.

It is not an empty threat. Eleven people have already been thrown off STEP and sentenced to other community punishments or prison. Nine more are due to reappear in court on breaches.

John, who has been injecting heroin for five years, looks too far gone for any scheme to reach. He has already lived rough after his mother threw him out. He was so desperate for heroin that he even sold the meat from her freezer. When the cold weather set in, she took him back. "It's mum who never gives up," said Mrs Burns sadly.

Despite the lapses and drop-out rate, the magistrates are generally upbeat. Some of their colleagues are hostile to a scheme which has brought unprecedented - and for some uncomfortable - informality to court. It is accepted that STEP is not for everyone, but Mrs Burns believes that the early signs are encouraging.