THE GOVERNMENT will this week give courts a controversial alternative to sending drug-using persistent offenders back to prison.
New Drug Treatment and Testing Orders are being launched in three pilot areas, offering addicts the chance of a strict detoxification and rehabilitation programme instead of being sent back to the overcrowded and drug-infested prison system.
The programme, which is due to be introduced nationally in 18 months, will be piloted from this week in Gloucestershire,Croydon and Liverpool.
In Gloucester, Steve Gyde's 23-year career of car-thieving, burglary, arson and drug-dealing has sent the crime rate soaring. At yet another court appearance earlier this year he expected, once again, a prison sentence.
Having been caught with a large quantity of heroin, he seemed likely to be jailed for five years. Instead, the judge decided to give him one last chance.
Now Gyde, 37, sits on a sofa with a dozen acupuncture needles protruding from his left ear, sipping herbal tea and planning an honest future.
He is among the first of hundreds of drug-addicted persistent offenders who are to be given the chance to rectify their criminal behaviour rather than being sent back to prison.
Gloucestershire Probation Service's Drug Stabilisation Treatment Programme has allowed Gyde to stay off heroin for seven months and turn his back on crime for the first time in his adult life.
A father of four, who has never worked, he was known around town as "Skeletal" because of his drug-ravaged features. "My skin looked like it had been stretched out over my bones," he said. "If I had carried on using heroin, I would be dead by now."
Now he follows a fitness regime and plans to open a sandwich bar. His transformation has already reduced Gloucestershire's crime bill by more than pounds 50,000.
Gyde is one of seven successful graduates of the programme, which is run in conjunction with the Severn NHS Trust. It is a hard regime. Most of the other 41 offenders have relapsed into drug-taking and have been sent back to court to be sentenced for their original offence.
The addicts start the course with a methadone-based detoxification course, lasting for up to 12 weeks. They are drug-tested three times a week throughout the six-month programme.
Gill McKenzie, head of Gloucestershire Probation Service, said: "There is no hiding place for them and clearly this is not a soft option. It is a massive leap forward in the treatment of drug abusers."
The course is based on a daily group therapy session which begins with Eden Sutcliffe, a community psychiatric nurse, sticking acupuncture needles into the ears of each addict.
Addicts accepted on to the scheme must pass an assessment interview, often lasting several hours, at which they must demonstrate a genuine desire to turn their lives around.
Dave Conway, a probation officer, said: "If they are willing to commit themselves 100 per cent then we will be 100 per cent behind them. If they are not, then they are thrown off the programme, because they are taking a place which could be given to someone else."
If an addict fails to appear for three group therapy sessions they are automatically sent back to court.
The programme has the enthusiastic support of local magistrates and police, who hope it might break the cycle of processing the same offenders through the courts and prisons.
After the launch of the pilot project this week, the Gloucestershire scheme will expand to treat 120 addicts a year, supported by an annual government grant of pounds 300,000. If the pilot schemes are successful they will be extended to the rest of the country in 2000.
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