Regional rehab services ‘falling behind’ after spike in ice use

A “massive spike” in methamphetamine use in regional Victoria during the past decade has meant the state has “fallen behind” in providing rehabilitation for former prisoners, according to support agency ACSO.

ACSO acting chief executive officer Vaughan Winther said the problem was exacerbated by the fact ice users often committed violent crimes while affected by the drug, excluding them from appropriate treatment.

The comments follow a Victorian Ombudsman’s report into the provision of rehabilitation services after contact with the criminal justice system, released earlier this month.

In the report, Ombudsman Deborah Glass noted long waiting times for inpatient detox services, particularly in rural and regional areas, were a “major hurdle” in the provision of alcohol and drug services and ultimately, effective rehabilitation.

“Our advice to the government and ombudsman is there’s a gap that has emerged, especially in the last decade,” Mr Winther said.

“And that gap is widening as we speak because of issues around ice because ice addiction also often results in violent offences which doesn’t necessarily mean someone is endemically violent, it just means that while intoxicated they’ve become violent.”

But Mr Winther said as soon as an ice user committed a violent crime, they were no longer eligible for the residential rehabilitation programs they needed.

“With the advent of ice over the last decade and the last three to five years, you’ve got a situation where those people, because of their ice addiction, end up committing violent offences – they go to prison, they come back out, they may need a period of residential rehabilitation post-prison and we’ve got the situation where they’re not able to be catered for at all,” he said.

“There are some programs in place whereby if they can’t get into residential rehabilitation they’ll be provided with some community-based counselling options which occurs, but if someone is assessed as requiring residential rehabilitation because of their long-term history of addiction it doesn’t necessarily match what they need.”

Even for those offenders who did qualify for residential rehabilitation, Mr Winther said if they lived in Bendigo, they had little choice but to travel to Melbourne for treatment, after being stuck on a waiting list for up to 100 days.

“There are very few beds in regional Victoria for residential rehabilitation,” he said.

“Most people who are exiting jail who go back to their homes or places of origin, including work and so forth, the situation is that if they require rehabilitation, most of them have to travel into Melbourne.

“The population’s growing in regional cities, Bendigo being one of them, and we’ve had an increase in facilities, whether it be health or mental health facilities and so forth and we think there needs to be a [equivalent] increase in support facilities for people who are experiencing drug and alcohol addiction.”

Mr Winther welcomed a state budget commitment to provide more rehabilitation beds but said more targeted investment was needed as “we just don’t know what [the funding] looks like yet”.

“There’s a range of things in place but the thing that’s missing in Victoria is investment and catch up in the form of treatment which is residential rehabilitation,” he said.

“If there’s investment in the community for rehabilitation beds more broadly, you actually end up with less people going to jail just because so many people are offending because of their drug use.”

Mr Winther also called for the drug court, which currently operates in Melbourne, to be expanded to Bendigo.

“If it could be expanded into regional areas we think you would actually then make an impact on keeping people diverted out of custody and being managed safely in the community,” he said.

“There’s only very few people who end up in custody that stay there forever, the vast majority get out and the vast majority are serving sentences of less than three years so they rotate in and out and we’ve got to get better at being able to actually engage them when they get out and keep them out.”

A state government spokeswoman said the government had provided “a record investment to rebuild the rehabilitation system to ensure people can get support in their community”.

“We’re investing in local communities through our Ice Action Plan, providing a 68 per cent increase in rehabilitation beds across the state and we’ve given police the powers they need to deal with those who peddle drugs,” she said.

“We’re providing more support for prisoners to find a home and access support services and have fixed the previous government’s botched recommissioning of the AOD sector – which has meant more people can access support easily and faster.”