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.