Something great is happening in Court

A year and a half on from the landmark conference about Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts last year I recently spent a Friday in one of the two that are now operating as pilots.

It’s 8.30a.m., we are in the Auckland District Court and Judge Ema Aitken is convening the morning meeting. First off I’m struck by how many people are here: besides the Judge and the Court Registrar, there’s a court coordinator, the Police prosecutor, three defence counsel who are assigned to this court and three people from a treatment provider perspective. As we work through each of the cases we are occasionally joined by someone’s solicitor or probation officer.

We start with new applications to become ‘participants’. The Judge kicks each one off by presenting the person’s history and circumstances. We hear from the Police prosecutor about risk of reoffending and risk of imprisonment, and anything in previous convictions that makes them more or less suitable for the programme. There’s lots of drunk driving, burglary, assault, failure to comply with previous sentences. Then we hear from the treatment providers about what treatment regime they are likely to recommend. There’s some frustration I hear about the most appropriate treatment options not always being available. Finally we hear from defence counsel, rounding out the picture, and then a decision is made – in or out. The Court can take up to 50 participants, and currently has about 30. The other pilot in Waitakere has about the same.

Then we move on to review the status of the people who will be appearing in the afternoon. Being an AODTC participant is not an easy option. You have to do treatment. You have to have random drug & alcohol testing. You’re likely to have to do community work, and every two weeks at least, you have to appear before a Judge for a review. As the morning wears on and the pile of thick folders in front of the judge is whittled down I am struck by how well this team knows the participants, and deeply moved by their insight, care and hope. Not all drug court participants are poor, but most are, and problems with income support, transport, housing and so on crop up pretty frequently alongside stories of success or things not going so well

A bit after 12 we break for lunch. Or rather I have lunch – all the Court team have meetings and other prep work, and at 1pm the open court hearing begins with karakia. I’ve spent a lot of time in Court or waiting outside, and this is a familiar feeling. Mostly it’s nerves and anxiety but there’s also smiles here and friendly conversation. Coming back to Court every fortnight, and often being in the same treatment programmes builds relationships between participants. They celebrate each other’s successes, and support each other when it gets hard. In the morning I even saw the team working out which week a particular participant should come back to ensure he would be up at the same time as another successful participant who had become a positive role model.

Maybe I’m lucky. I know that participants often have multiple setbacks on their road to recovery, but on the day I visit most have been doing well. There’s applause when we hear how many days abstinent they’ve been, and lots of positive reinforcement from the Judge. Several have family members who are there to support them. Support workers in the back of the Court work the crowd, talking with the participants, giving them hugs if they need it, occasionally offering helpful comments to Judge Aitken. Several of the women participants have waiata sung for them. The people who are doing well are staying out of prison by being on this programme of course, which is certainly a motivation, but everyone I saw also seemed genuinely proud of their achievement and appreciative of the praise.

That’s not everyone though. One guy on his thirteenth drink driving conviction has returned a positive test for methamphetamine after months of being drug-free, and his explanations just don’t wash. Honesty is critical to the success of the programme – a message I hear many times over in the day. Judge Aitken is very disappointed and tells him so. He must appear the following week to put a case for why he should stay on the programme. Other ‘sanctions’ might be a writing assignment, or a very brief period in the cells It’s a Court after all, and if the participants weren’t on this programme, they would be in the cells.

It’s too early to know how successful this approach will be in reducing recidivism, one of the major goals of the programme, but at the very least it is reducing drug-related harm to some of those who have been most harmed. It must be a bit like being a fan of the Black Caps for Judge Aitken and the AODTC team, lurching between exhilarating success and inexplicable failure, but this is a bold, exciting and compassionate approach to one aspect of criminal justice that might really work. I hope so.

6 thoughts on “Something great is happening in Court

  1. Statistics of alcohol levels in those drivers involved in accidents show that drivers with around 50mg alcohol have fewer accidents than drivers with no alcohol. This should not be taken to mean that having 50mg of alcohol has made these drivers safer. Instead it is more likely that drivers who moderate their drinking to just a glass or two are safer by nature, and probably also take more care while driving knowing that they have had a drink. These are not the people that you want to see in court.

    Trevor.

  2. (Sorry to post a little off-topic but there have not been any General Debate threads for over a month so this was the closest thread I could find.)

    A private members bill to reduce the driving alcohol blood limit from 80 to 50 mg/100ml of blood has been drawn from the ballot. The Green Party has indicated its support. While I support the intent, I believe that this bill will increase the number of drivers caught just over the limit. Unlike exceeding the speed limit, where the driver has a reliable indicator to observe, and a graduated series of penalties starting with on-the-spot fines and demerit points, exceeding the alcohol limit results in a court appearance as the first indication that the limit has been exceeded.

    If the limit is to be reduced, I would like to see less draconian penalties for exceeding the limit by a small amount – say readings between 50-75mg – of fines and demerit points, and not being allowed to continue driving at that time. Reserve the court appearances for those who exceed the limit by more than 50%.

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/manawatu-standard/news/9213592/Bill-to-slash-drink-drive-limit

    Trevor.

  3. The whole idea of ‘drug courts’ is an anathema.. this whole issue should be moved from the criminal ‘injustice’ system to the health system with a focus on treating people with ‘problematic’ addiction, not criminalising them.
    The ‘war on drugs’ is a failed policy that should be cast in the dustbin of history. These substances should be taken away from the ‘gangs’ & strictly regulated (R18) similar to alcohol/tobacco.
    Building ‘private prisons’ to market ‘drug offenders’ is NOT about justice.. its totally injustice !
    The MODA 1975 is passed its use-by date & needs to be overhauled (as was recommended by the Law Comm. report 2011).. but this Govt. ignored it & just tiptoe around the edges.. pushing the ‘law & order’ mantra & ‘not getting soft on drugs’ NONSENSE !!

    “WAKE UP people & smell the buds !”

    Kia-ora

  4. “Snowcrash Posted September 20, 2013 at 1:24 PM
    So the guy with problematic alcohol use tests positive for methamphetamine and gets ‘sanctions’.

    What happens when someone with problematic methamphetamine use tests positive for alcohol, I wonder?

    And if someone whose crimes are related to problematic methamphetamine use tests positive for a substance unrelated to their crime, say, cannabis, do they get kicked off the programme and end up in jail, or do they get charged for a different crime (one that’s unlikely to carry jail time)?

    I’m not convinced that abstinence-only programmes are going to be the most successful at keeping people out of jail and helping them with problematic drug use tbh.”

    I think you need to re-read the blog, as the person described with the meths positive test has to come back and state their case for staying on the program. The sanctions were mentioned as “other” were in an entirely new sentence.
    And substance abuse covers all illegal drugs or disabuse of even legal drugs like alcohol, so it all has a bearing on their suitability for rehabilitation.
    Also it is fair to expect that if people are not willing to make the effort to help themselves, the foot needs to be put down and they need to suffer the consequences of their own actions (so others don’t have too).
    As the program has limited space, anyone abusing it should be moved off it so others more willing to rehabilitate can have a chance. Fair enough no?

  5. So the guy with problematic alcohol use tests positive for methamphetamine and gets ‘sanctions’.

    What happens when someone with problematic methamphetamine use tests positive for alcohol, I wonder?

    And if someone whose crimes are related to problematic methamphetamine use tests positive for a substance unrelated to their crime, say, cannabis, do they get kicked off the programme and end up in jail, or do they get charged for a different crime (one that’s unlikely to carry jail time)?

    I’m not convinced that abstinence-only programmes are going to be the most successful at keeping people out of jail and helping them with problematic drug use tbh.

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