Why? Same offences get different sentences

Three defendants appear in Summary Court
and plead guilty to consuming ganja.

One is jailed.

One is fined.

One is placed on probation, with no
conviction recorded.

Which drug user got the correct sentence?

All three.

Yes, there is a Drug Rehabilitation Court,
but it is for addicts willing to make a commitment to an intensive long-term
treatment programme.

What about the occasional user, the
experimenter or the thrill-seeking vacationer? The Misuse of Drugs Law, the
Criminal Procedure Code, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Law and others provide
various ways of dealing with them.

Recently a man with a history of drug
offences returned on charges of possession and consumption of ganja. He was
typical of the drug user who does not want counselling and says he can stop any
time he wants. Setting a return date in three weeks, the magistrate told him,
“Get yourself clean or pack your grip.”

Drug consumption is against the law. If
people repeatedly flout the law, what is the court to do?

There are offenders not in the Drug Rehab
Court whom the magistrates try to help by postponing sentence and requiring
them to return to court for random urine testing and informal supervision. When
they continue to test positive, sentencing is inevitable. They don’t want to go
to jail, but they won’t stop doing the very thing that will put them there.
“You’re either in treatment or in custody,” Chief Magistrate Margaret
Ramsay-Hale has said numerous times.

Fines may be appropriate in some cases, but
the chief magistrate has reservations. “I am concerned that repeatedly imposing
fines may cause an offender to believe that he can purchase the right to use
his drugs; that is, to believe that he can break the law and simply pay a
monetary penalty for the privilege. Fines provide little incentive to cease
illegal drug use.”

Someone who receives a fine as sentence is
frequently a nonresident or a first offender who has impressed the court with
his or her remorse, whose circumstances do not warrant a counselling programme
and who has expressed determination not to get involved with drugs again. The
resident offender is warned that a return to court will be dealt with
differently.

With a sentence of imprisonment or fine, the
offender also receives a conviction record that lasts five years.  A person with a criminal conviction must
declare it on job applications, visa applications and school admission forms.
For young people who want to travel, further their education or explore career
options, a conviction is a real hurdle to overcome.

The courts may offer the option of being
placed on probation for a year. It’s not easy: it means appointments with a
probation officer, counselling sessions and random urine analyses.

If the offender agrees, the magistrate may
decide not to record a conviction, or record it and explain that it will be
expunged on successful completion of the probation order.

Failure means returning for a new sentence.

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