Jail time could be swapped for rehab under radical proposal to establish dedicated drugs court
Drug crime could be dealt with by a dedicated drugs court instead of the traditional justice system under radical proposals.
Inspired by a justice centre based in the New York Bronx, the "problem-solving court" would link offenders who would ordinarily be prison-bound to long-term community-based treatment.
In a bid to reduce crime and reoffending levels, the court would offer eligible offenders access to drug treatments and other support services.
To qualify, offenders would be required to take regular drug tests and then return to court periodically to give an account of their progress.
The benefits of such a justice model are to be discussed at a justice seminar next month, to be run by the chairman of Stormont's Justice Committee, Alastair Ross.
"An effective criminal justice system doesn't simply find those responsible for breaking the law and punish them - in addition, it must also rehabilitate them so that they don't offend again," said Mr Ross.
"For example, a drug addict who is committing crime in order to feed their addiction will probably not be reformed by simply serving a short prison sentence.
"They will more than likely find substances to abuse within prison and return immediately to a life of crime when released, because the underlying problem has not been addressed."
Drug abuse and drug-related crime is becoming increasingly widespread across Northern Ireland. During the past year, almost 3,000 people were arrested by PSNI officers for drug-related offences - the highest number in 10 years.
The largest seizures have been cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis and illegal highs, but there is also concern over the growth of the heroin market. Just last week, wraps of the deadly drug were found at a house in Co Down during a operation by the PSNI and the National Crime Agency.
Drug courts are already used in parts of Scotland, England and Wales.
As well as tackling drugs, the problem-solving model of justice could also be extended to teenage courts to provide an alternative disposal for juveniles who have committed a minor offence, or mental health courts, for those people with mental health issues, Mr Ross said.
He insisted that the scheme had worked particularly well in areas including the Bronx.
"The principle behind a problem-solving court is that the underlying problems of an offender are faced and addressed, because otherwise they will simply get stuck in the revolving door of the criminal justice system," said Mr Ross.
"These types of innovative problem-solving courts test new approaches to often difficult cases where social and legal problems can merge, and they have now expanded beyond the US to other countries such as Australia, Belgium and Norway - and here in the UK."
Mr Ross said that a recent evaluation of drug courts in America showed a 13% reduction in reoffending.
"In Northern Ireland, we should not be afraid of adopting new approaches in justice," the DUP MLA for East Antrim said.
"I think that it is time for a discussion about how our courts could modernise or specialise and offer different solutions for young people to offer them better outcomes."
Mr Ross added that debates around appropriate diversions, restitution or restorative justice, community service and work programmes "can offer alternatives to prison for low-level, non-violent, first-time offenders", which in turn will save the public money.