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Sentenced to Change – Kim McGuigan

BLOGS | 22nd December 2017

I had attended an event called ‘Communicating Justice’ organised by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute. I had shared my story with the audience about when I received a community sentence and the sheriff who I felt had played a part in turning my life around.

I was given a two-year supervision order and the judge had me back in court every few weeks to monitor my progress and assess reports from my social worker. I was originally told by a sheriff that I was facing a custodial sentence – I believe I got lucky on the day of sentencing, because I ended up with a new sheriff who spoke to me. It was the first time I had been in court and a sheriff had ever asked me anything. At the time my life was so chaotic I really didn’t care and I wanted to go to prison, as I thought that was the answer to my problems.

The sheriff told me she was willing to give me a chance to address my underlying issues and sort my life out. After a few months on my order, I eventually gave in to the changes I desperately had to make and I don’t even recognise that person anymore. I got the help and support I needed and I believe that supervision was the first step that saved my life.

At that same event I was introduced to Sheriff Wood, who is one of the sheriffs in the Glasgow Drug Court.

The drug court is where people who are offending and have substance misuse issues are given the opportunity to address it with treatment, reinforced by a Drug Treatment Testing Order (DTTO) rather than prison – allowing them to become drug-free and encouraging them to commit to changing their lives.

Sherriff Wood told me that the people he sees are given intense support and various workers from many professions are available to help them reduce their drug misuse. The offending behaviour normally take care of itself when the person is supported to recover from addiction.

I was invited to go and sit in the court a couple days later. As I went through security and down to the basement, I was stopped by two guards who asked if I was lost. I told them I was going to the drug court and that I had been invited to sit in by Sheriff Wood. One of the men said ‘I’ll show you where the restaurant is pal, because you won’t be wanting to hang about, waiting with that lot’ pointing to a group of guys waiting to go into the drug court. I was quite taken aback and I replied ‘what, hang about wae they people?’ and I walked over and sat beside them.

As I sat reeling by what the security guard had just said, a man in his early forties sat beside me and started chatting away. He told me that he was feeling nervous, as he didn’t have the best results for Sheriff Wood and that he was struggling because of his homeless situation to keep up his appointments.

He said he’d be better off in the jail, but he didn’t want to let Sheriff Wood down because he had really believed in him when he’d never believed in himself.

I knew what that felt like, so I told him a bit about me and how I turned my life around and soon everyone in the waiting room was sharing their stories.

The court got called and I sat up the back, not sure what to expect, but after listening to the people in the waiting room I was excited to have the opportunity to see how the court ran. It was a strange atmosphere, waiting on Sheriff Wood coming out – you could feel the nerves from people who were waiting to go up.

First up was a graduation! The man was in his forties and had long battled with drug misuse. Sheriff Wood congratulated him, praised his hard work and told him he understood how hard that order was for him, and then the guy spoke about all the support he’d had and thanked everyone who had helped him. Sheriff Wood then came down from the bench and met the man in the middle and they shook hands as Sheriff Wood handed the guy a certificate. The room erupted with clapping and cheering, it was an experience I will never forget. I wanted to get up and give the guy a cuddle, he had tears of joy running down his face. The atmosphere in the room instantly changed and I could hear people saying things like ‘I hope that’s me next year’ and ‘aw I canny wait till I’m there’.

The next few people up were people who were doing well on their orders. They were congratulated and told to keep up the good work – I watched in awe as Sheriff Wood took his time with each person and was even joking with them. A young guy’s girlfriend had just had a baby and Sheriff Wood shared a personal story with him about becoming a granddad. The guy and Sheriff Wood agreed that his commitment to change will mean the baby will have a good outcome in life.

I was blown away with the compassion Sheriff Wood had and the way the men and woman engaged with him. But at the same time Sheriff Wood was no pushover. He knew if someone was at it – there was no fooling him. I think the court works so well because it’s up to the person to be open and transparent about their recovery and they must make the first steps to do so. They must accept the changes they have to make – the team around them, and Sheriff Wood, are there to make sure that the support is in place for them to do so.

The thing that really struck me the most was the respect the people had for Sheriff Wood. Most of them didn’t want to let him down because of the relationship he had built with them. People on DTTOs knew how hard their journey was going to be, but they became dedicated to change because they were given the chance to.

Being sentenced to change should be at the heart of the Scottish courts.

I’m not taking away the fact that people need to be punished, because laws are there for a reason. But what if there were more sheriffs like Sheriff Wood and more drug courts and more resources to help people?

Changing your life around and walking away from a life that you have always known is a sentence in itself. Committing to change takes real strength and Sheriff Wood gets that. He wants the people that walk into his court to have better lives and he believes they will. That’s the first step in change – having someone that believes in you when you don’t believe in yourself.