After spending almost half his life behind bars, Michael Sagriff is turning his life around thanks to Regina Drug Treatment Court.
Drug treatment court is an alternative justice program that started in 2006 as a way to treat the addictions of repeat offenders with the hope of keeping them out of jail. At a recent conference held in Regina, Sagriff’s story was highlighted.
Sagriff says he was five when he first started getting into trouble with police. It was around that time he was taken away from his parents and shuttled between group homes and schools for the next 11 years.
“Then when I turned 16, you’re now an adult and their attitude was well, you haven’t changed so far, so you’re not going to change. So off to jail I went,” Sagriff said.
He says his addictions started with pot, alcohol and LSD before he tried cocaine. He said that one took a big toll, because you don’t just stop using cocaine.
“Most of the crimes in the beginning were thefts; anything and everything from stores or whatever where you could get a little bit of money,” he explained. “It didn’t matter where it came from as long as it could get me drugs – that was the key.”
Crimes escalating in violence
“They started to get really bad. I didn’t care about myself. That’s the way I look at it now, and therefore I didn’t care for anybody else,” he said. “Once I got weapons in my hands, that was just bad. I turned into a totally different person.
Sagriff says he troubles with the law included armed robberies drug charges, smuggling drugs, violence, and even attempted murder on a police officer. Spending nearly 22 years in prisons, he was released from federal prison and chose Regina as a place to live. Pretty soon, he was back to his old habits and racking up criminal charges.
That’s when a lawyer mentioned Drug Treatment Court and he decided to give it a try.
“In the beginning it was a little ‘oh my God’ what did I get myself into here, but it very quickly just went away,” he said. “The key that I found personally for me was I had to become honest … just by being honest with me – like ‘hey you really do have a problem here.’”
After graduating from the program in 2012, he’s happy to say he has been clean for four years. He says he wouldn’t have known where to start without going through the program, especially because quitting drugs was just the first step – he had to deal with a lot of other issues under the surface.
Where justice and treatment meet
Stories like Sagriff’s are familiar yet still inspirational to Judge Kofi Barnes, who is now a Superior Court Justice in Ontario. He helped start the very first Drug Treatment Court in Canada in 1998.
Even early in his law career, Barnes says it was easy to spot the “frequent flyers” through the courts. At first, he was inclined to think they were just bad people, but when he started working on the program, he quickly realized their crimes were fueled by drug addiction.
“Their addictions were not taken care of and they just kept reoffending so it was a revolving door,” Barnes explained.
The same people were an extra cost to the justice system, law enforcement and the health care system, so they tried to find a solution.
“It was truly inspiring and it was very rewarding because we really, really took care of public safety in a very permanent way,” Barnes said. “There’s nothing more powerful than getting someone who is always committing offences to stop and to get them to become productive members of society.”
He noted that there have been studies done that show for every dollar spent on drug treatment programs, it saves taxpayers $10. He said that alone is a huge financial incentive that goes beyond the human story.
But it is those human stories that make him happy about his work as a judge. He remembers one woman who was well known to the people in jails and courtrooms because she kept committing crimes.
“A court officer turned over to me and said ‘you know, if she makes it, anybody can’ and she did.”
Saskatchewan has two drug treatment courts – one in Regina and one in Moose Jaw. There are also mental health courts in Regina and Saskatoon along with three domestic violence courts in Regina, Saskatoon and the Battlefords.