Therapeutic Justice evaluation confirms benefits in Goulburn Valley

In 2015 the Victorian Legal Services Board funded Goulburn Valley CLC, in partnership with Primary Care Connect, to deliver a pilot Therapeutic Justice program in Shepparton.

The pilot recognised that the law often intersects with people’s lives without it being aware of its effect on their overall well-being. A therapeutic justice model takes a more holistic approach. It ensures that Courts are made aware of relevant information concerning a client’s underlying issues (e.g. mental ill health, intellectual impairment, homelessness or substance abuse). Courts can then take this information into account to promote the offender’s engagement with appropriate services, thereby reducing the likelihood of reoffending. The approach benefits both the offender and the broader community.

The program embedded an allied health Case Manager within our service at Shepparton Magistrates’ Court. Via the Case Manager, it extended holistic support and integrated case management to people with criminal matters and related and complex health and social needs. The Case Manager connected clients to appropriate support services, including health, social and cultural supports, facilitated coordination of and information sharing between these services, and monitored clients’ progress.

The program Lawyer provided clients with legal information, advice and representation at Court, and secondary consultations and legal education to workers at Primary Care Connect and other local health and social services.

Prior to the service, there were no coordinated therapeutic programs at the Court, even for offenders who were mandated by Correctional Services to engage with such programs.

The service aimed to:

  • encourage Courts to take into account the issues underlying a person’s offending
  • assist offenders with their underlying issues at an earlier stage to reduce their likelihood of becoming repeat or high-risk offenders
  • encourage offenders to engage with services on a long-term basis, and
  • demonstrate that effective social interventions and supports could reduce the likelihood of a person re-offending

In order to assess our impact in this area, we recently evaluated this program. Our evaluation aimed to:

  • assess the outcomes of the program in relation to its established objectives
  • identify the factors contributing to the program’s achievements, and
  • support evidence-based learning around therapeutic models of practice

To ensure we consulted with all relevant stakeholders, we conducted interviews with a willing client and representatives from Police Prosecutions, Primary Care Connect and Goulburn Valley Law Association. We also interviewed the program Lawyer and Case Manager.

Several case studies were developed to reflect a range of client experiences and outcomes. However, due to the transient nature of the client cohort, only one client interview could be completed. We acknowledge the under-representation of client voices in the data. Nonetheless, the client stories are instructional and point to the model’s potential.

One client, Brian*, had a 10-year history of drug use and trafficking. After serving a short sentence for his last offence, Brian believed that the trusting relationship he formed with the program’s Case Manager gave him hope and the belief that he could turn his life around.

With support from the Case Manager, Brian found a suitable rehabilitation centre. As he put it: ‘All me mates died, and I was gunna end up being dead myself.’ Brian had been in and out of rehabilitation before. However, due to his offending he was unable to find a local rehabilitation centre that would accept him. Nonetheless, the Case Manager found a local rehabilitation program that was prepared to accept him. ‘[The program] bent over backwards for me,’ he said. ‘[It was a] bit of muck around to get me into rehab, [but they] found a place that would allow me to be bailed to them.’

With ongoing support from the Case Manager, Brian took control of his drug use and offending. Prior to his engagement with the program, Brian had failed to complete nearly a dozen Community Corrections Orders. He subsequently attributed his success at completing a CCO to the program. While he credits the rehabilitation centre with turning his life around, the Case Manager’s moral support was also instrumental. It provided Brian with access to treatment, and the strength to see it through.

Brain is now employed in the construction sector. After years of reoffending and breaching CCOs, Brian has no doubt the program changed his life. He now lives without drugs or crime or the fear of going back to prison.

The program’s evaluation established that it met, and in many cases exceeded, its key performance targets and intended outcomes. Stakeholder feedback was overwhelmingly positive. It highlighted the program’s critical role in improving services coordination and enabling more therapeutic responses to clients with complex needs. An overwhelming majority of stakeholders told us that the program had made a ‘significant’ or ‘essential’ contribution to client wellbeing and access to and coordination of therapeutic services.

The evaluation pointed to:

  • improved referral pathways and collaboration, coordination and case planning between services
  • increased access to therapeutic and early intervention supports for clients
  • increased client trust in and engagement with services, potentially reducing recidivism
  • increased understanding and respect between legal, health and justice sector actors
  • increased knowledge around clients’ interrelated legal, health and social needs
  • increased understanding of therapeutic justice principles and approaches
  • improved legal and health outcomes for clients
  • the service’s potential to complement other therapeutic programs, such as the Court Integrated Support Program (CISP)

The program’s success challenges the current populist push for more punitive responses to law and order in Victoria. The evaluation demonstrates that a therapeutic approach benefits the health and wellbeing of individuals, families and the community. Further, it is a model that is readily adaptable to other regional and rural settings.

We believe that the evaluation should inform the roll-out of CISP in regional Courts, and that the model would complement this service by offering expanded access to early intervention supports for clients with complex needs. In Courts where CISP or similar programs are yet to be introduced, the therapeutic justice model would be an effective and low-cost alternative.

Funding for the Goulburn Valley Therapeutic Justice program ended in May 2018.

*Not his real name.


Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash


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