Drug offenders don’t need to go to prison. 

That’s the controversial stance of retiring senior judge Roger Dive, who has been arguing for better treatment of drug offenders since he first began at the NSW Drug Court 17 years ago. 

“You’re giving someone an opportunity not to be in custody and not to serve a sentence but to actually make some change,” he tells Central News.

“But change is a very difficult thing to do. It would be a very true thing to say that many times the participant is the last one to realise that it actually would be possible to get off drugs, and it might actually really be possible to have a different life than the one that they’ve been leading for the last 20 or 30 years,” he said. 

The Drug Court enables participants to delay and potentially avoid altogether their prison sentences, by instead enrolling them in a program that involves completely abstaining from drug use, weekly court check-ins, and other community-supportive behaviour. 

The aim is to allow those convicted of drug-abuse crimes to overcome their addiction and regain a sense of stability and normalcy in their life, without plunging them into the prison system. In 2020, it was found that Drug Court participants have a 17 per cent lower reoffending rate than those not placed in the program (Bureau of Crime Statistics & Research, 2020)

Judge Dive is an evangelist for this method of sentencing.

“The key thing is that we know it works. And we know it costs less than imprisoning people. We know it reduces recidivism,” he says. 

I’m still in touch with people who graduated 15 years ago. They’ll email me a photo of the baby that was born on the Drug Court program starting school.

“It’s engaging people with the process rather than just being dealt with in a patronising fashion, perhaps.” 

His Honour has the personal anecdotes to prove it. Since 2004, he has helped hundreds of people to graduate from the Drug Court program, and remains in touch with many of them to this day. 

“I’m still in touch with people who graduated 15 years ago. They’ll email me a photo of the baby that was born on the Drug Court program starting school,” he said.

“I know people who are well and happy and stable in our community, and yet it all came out of recovery with the Drug Court program.”

Judge Dive remembers with fondness a time he was able to encourage an offender to ‘move Christmas’, so the offender could celebrate his child’s first Christmas and attend the Drug Court program the following week. 

“I do remember telling him – ‘I’ve got small grandchildren, they do not know what day it is. They do not know it’s Christmas!’ You can have Christmas this week, and they will put you in next Tuesday!’”

“They had Christmas in November! The long-term result was it was a fantastic program, he did really well,” he said. 

Stories such as these illustrate the message Judge Dive has fought his whole career to convey – drug offenders are regular community members, with families, friends, goals and failures. He believes a system of incarceration only removes offenders from their support networks and creates a greater cost for communities. 

“Expansion [of the Drug Court] has been driven by communities. There’s that community demand to try something that works, and do something different. Because drug addiction… there are so many costs to a community. It’s not just the crime,” he says.

“It can be very damaging in a small regional community.” 

We’ve definitely come a long way, but clearly there’s still a long way to go.

He is pleased with the achievements that have been made in the Drug Court, having witnessed much of it himself during his 32-year long career at the bar.

The Drug Court has been able to adapt to the changing conditions of a COVID-19 world, something that would not have been possible 20 years ago. 

“Just the other day we had a young woman, she’s completed the program, done very well, she was in a small country town, we didn’t want to bring her back to court for her final sentence, which was going to be a non-custodial order, because actually if she came back to Sydney she wouldn’t be allowed to leave again,” he adds. 

“So we just worked out how to do it with a Facetime call… with all the submissions, and the orders were made, and we wished her well on the video screen, on her mobile phone, propped up in the lounge room.” 

More recently the long-fought-for announcement of a new Drug Court in Dubbo, is something Judge Dive is particularly proud of. However he says there is still work to be done. 

“We’ve definitely come a long way, but clearly there’s still a long way to go,” he says. 

“It’s a worrying concept that you can live on the wrong side of the road, which means you’re in a different local government area, and therefore you are not eligible for the Drug Court program and you just go to jail.

“I might have 13 referrals but I can only take six … the others will be sentenced in the ordinary way.” 

I think my very first posting was to a court which is at 4-6 Phillip Street, down near Circular Quay. It’s now the Police and Justice Museum.

However despite his long and successful career in the legal system, Judge Dive didn’t always have an interest in law. In fact, he began his career with some self-named “false starts”. 

“When I was younger I certainly would have liked to be a vet,” he says. “I certainly didn’t work hard enough to get into vet school!

“I did start at a science degree but it just wasn’t for me.” 

But following the suggestion of his solicitor father to get involved in some of the public service departments while waiting for the next Solicitors Admission Board course, he was hooked. 

“I think my very first posting was to a court which is at 4-6 Phillip Street, down near Circular Quay. It’s now the Police and Justice Museum, and so my first place of work has been a museum for a long time now! [That] makes me feel like a bit of a relic.

“In those days, there was no system of infringement notices, so everything went to court. The court imposed penalties and we would write out a receipt for their fine. The height of technology was the adding machine that you could plug into the wall and it was electric! That was the height of technology in the court at that time.” 

Judge Dive plans to take part in the future of the Drug Court after his retirement in August, but is hopeful he will still work part-time at the court, unable to give up the community he has so tirelessly advocated for just yet. 

His Honour also aims to work in the homeless sector and help support disadvantaged people with housing. 

He is, however, “looking forward to having a bit more unstructured time. Courts are… very regimented” and he notes he needs to do something entirely different: “I’d like to build a kayak with Australian timber!”

Main picture of Judge Roger Dive supplied by Department of Communities and Justice.