By Robbie Meredith BBC News NI Education Correspondent - 16 March 2018

A new pilot project to introduce American-style 'drug courts' to Northern Ireland is being developed.

They are courts aimed at keeping drug users out of prison and getting them into treatment.

A senior American judge is in Belfast to advise local judges, politicians and others working in the criminal justice system about how they operate. Gregory Jackson was appointed to the District of Columbia Superior Court in 2005 by then President George W Bush.

Judge Jackson said drug courts were not about punishment.

"If you successfully complete the programme, you're done - you're out of the criminal justice system," he said.

Drug users and even some small-scale dealers are offered a way to escape prison and a conviction

"We average on any given day between 75 to 125 people participating in the drug court programme.

"Our graduation rate is around 50% to 60%."

Impressive statistics

That means that over half of those who begin the treatment programme complete it.

And they literally graduate, with special ceremonies held in courthouses to recognise their achievement.

The statistics are impressive.

Drug courts in the USA have been shown to reduce crime by 45% in comparison with other sentencing options.

According to Judge Jackson, they also save the public purse between $3,000 and $13,000 dollars per person.

Yet he admits that getting the public and politicians to recognise that they are not a 'soft option' has taken time.

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