The 2015 Equal Justice Award: A Profile of the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts

Every year, the Equal Justice Project recognises the work of legal practitioners helping to improve access to justice in Auckland communities. This year, we will be presenting the award to Judge Lisa Tremewan and Judge Ema Aitken, to celebrate their work in establishing the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts in New Zealand.

Why do people commit crimes?

It’s an impossibly difficult question to answer, but we have to try. Difficulties arise of course, because it’s hard to know which of the many characteristics shared by those who commit crime are truly causal factors. At the same time, many of the trends which link persistent offenders can be measured and studied, and we can try our hardest to try and separate causation and correlation.

One thing has become overwhelmingly apparent when studying such factors. Alcohol or other drug use is associated with a vast majority of offending. According to a Law Commission report, 80 per cent of all offending in New Zealand is committed by someone with drug or alcohol abuse issues,[1] while a Department of Corrections report found that two out of every three sentenced prisoners say that they have an alcohol or drug dependence.[2]

A scientific and data-driven approach to formulating policy would indicate that treating substance abuse may lead to a significant decrease in the rate of offending, if drugs and alcohol are truly a causal factor in committing crimes. This is what has happened in courts across many jurisdictions – including in the United States, where the establishment of Drug Treatment Courts has been proven to be a major success in reducing rates of recidivism.[3]

In New Zealand, Judges Lisa Tremewan and Ema Aitken have established the first Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court (AODTC). So far, we are still in the trial stages of the programme, as the initial pilot program was established in 2010. With the initial term of five years drawing to a close, we are well placed to begin evaluating the efficacy and impact of the programme to date.

How the Courts work

According to the Ministry of Justice, the pilot programme aims to reduce reoffending, reduce alcohol and other drug use and dependency, reduce the use of imprisonment by the criminal justice system, and positively impact on the defendant’s health and well-being.[4] Not only would society benefit from the reduction in criminal offending, but if the programme is successful it would dramatically reduce the costs associated with imprisonment. In San Francisco, a similar program saves $1.46 for every $1 spent on the programme.[5]

Under the programme, offenders who have been convicted of a crime are selected for the AODTC and have their case put on hold prior to sentencing so that they can enter into an intensive treatment programme. If they successfully address their addiction and relevant related issues, and demonstrate a commitment to being proactive in their recovery going forward, these factors are favourably taken into account at sentencing. To be eligible, offenders must have pleaded guilty, and face at least three years in prison. Of course, they must also show a willingness to change their ways.[6]

The programme requires participants to undergo treatment as directed, and submit to drug testing at least twice a week. Additionally, they must participate in community work for the duration of the program. For many of the participants, their community work has led to full time work following the completion of the programme.[7]

The programme incorporates a varied range of experts and stakeholders into the process, with police prosecutors, defence lawyers, social workers and drug treatment workers all having input into the process.[8]

“A hallmark of the pilot is that it jointly brings together health and justice considerations – appropriate given that the participants are offenders whose offending has been driven by an alcohol or other drug dependency,” says Judge Tremewan. “This initiative is breaking new ground given the way in which the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Justice have come together in the pilot. Rather than a ‘silo’ approach, this collaborative approach has many benefits. Instead of a problem being seen as ‘someone else’s’ and defendants recycling repeatedly through the system, the problems are jointly shared, with obviously better outcomes.”[9]

This is a crucial point – instead of lawyers and judges having to adopt a role as ‘pseudo-clinicians’ and making determinations that they are not equipped to make, experts in each field collaborate and build on each other’s expertise to arrive at the best outcomes for both the offender and society.

Under the pilot programme, each Court can only take up to 50 participants at a time (there are currently two in operation, in the Auckland and Waitakere District Courts). Each potential candidate is scrutinised against a set of criteria and voted on by a team of police, lawyers, counsellors and court staff before being accepted by the judge. Factors taken into account include public safety, history of violence, whether the offender is Maori, and if they have dependents.[10] As Maori are overrepresented in both offending and substance abuse statistics, the Court takes the view that alternative approaches to alcohol or other drug related crimes are needed to help reverse those trends.[11]

At the same time, as Judge Tremewan astutely notes, addiction cuts across socio-economic and racial divides, and many in the community know someone who has suffered from the ravages of addiction.[12] As a result, there appears to be broad-based support from the community for the programme, and it has yet to be subject to being kicked around as a political football by penal populists. Indeed, Judge Tremewan told us that in her experience many of the victims themselves have been remarkably supportive of the approach taken by the AODTC.

“Our experience to date is that victims contacted by the Police have generally been supportive of participants dealing with their issues and express hope that there won’t be further offending committed by them again.” Says Judge Tremewan.[13]

Results thus far

When judged against the Ministry of Justice’s stated aims, the pilot programme has been a resounding success.  Not only have graduates of the programme been recorded as having significantly lower rates of reoffending, but even participants who do not complete the programme experience lower rates of recidivism.[14]

We asked Judge Tremewan why this could be, and whether New Zealand had a large enough sample size to draw meaningful conclusions from that.

“The overseas research has demonstrated that even those who do not graduate from the court still typically do better than had they never been referred,” said Judge Tremewan. “Judge Peggy Hora (one of the pioneering Drug Court judges and an international authority on the topic) explained on a recent mentoring visit here: there is now research which indicates that any contact with a Drug Court is favourable. For many people who feel trapped in a hopeless cycle, it might be the first time they have even considered that their lives could be different.”[15]

Although there is no official plan for expansion of the AODTC while the court is still in the pilot phase, Judge Tremewan appears to be optimistic about an expansion of the programme in other locations and in greater numbers to provide for wider access to the programme. The pilot programme is likely to reach many of the stated aims and benchmarks provided by the Ministry of Justice. In an interview with TVNZ, then-Minister for Justice Judith Collins set a target of 25 per cent reduction in the rate of reoffending,[16] although a full and proper investigation into the empirical data and research based evaluation of the programme will take place before any further decisions are made.

In an interview with the Auckland District Law Society in November of last year, Judge Aitken relayed the statistic that “in the 12 months before the participants came into the AODTC, they had been known to commit more than 900 offences between them; however in the 12 months after they entered the Court these participants had collectively committed only nine offences.”[17]

In an area of public policy where passions often run high, Judge Tremewan and Judge Aitken have introduced a rational, fact-based approach to dealing with criminal offending which appears to be working better than anything that we’ve tried before. Their tireless work in ensuring that our justice system is both compassionate and effective in reducing offending, saving taxpayers’ money, and most importantly, changing people’s lives for the better, are values which the Equal Justice Project finds profoundly inspiring. For this reason, we are honouring both Judge Tremewan and Judge Aitken with our 2015 Equal Justice Award.

 


 

[1] Law Commission Alcohol In Our Lives: Curbing the Harm (NZLC R114, 2010) at 78.

[2] Department of Corrections Tackling alcohol and drug abuse (August 2013).

[3] Claire Meehan, Katey Thom and Alice Mills “A review of Alcohol and Other Drug Court evalutions” (paper for the Auckland Centre for Mental Health Research, November 2013).

[4] Ministry of Justice “Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment (AODT) Court pilot” <http://www.justice.govt.nz/courts/district-court/alcohol-and-other-drug-treatment-aodt-court-pilot-1>.

[5] Interview with Judith Collins, Minister of Justice (Rawdon Christie, Breakfast, TVNZ, 2 November 2012).

[6] Ministry of Justice “Information For Participants” <http://www.justice.govt.nz/courts/district-court/alcohol-and-other-drug-treatment-aodt-court-pilot-1/information-for-participants>.

[7] LawNews “Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court marks two years of a new approach” (21 November 2014) Auckland District Law Society <http://www.adls.org.nz/for-the-profession/news-and-opinion/2014/11/21/alcohol-and-other-drug-treatment-court-marks-two-years-of-a-new-approach/>.

[8] Peter Calder “Justice – laced with redemption” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, Auckland, 12 March 2014).

[9] Interview with Judge Lisa Tremewan, District Court Judge (the author, Equal Justice Project, 18 March 2015).

[10] Kirsty Johnston “Shutting the revolving door” Sunday Star Times (online ed, 20 October 2013).

[11] Law Commission, above n 1, at 92.

[12] Interview with Judge Tremewan.

[13] Interview with Judge Tremewan.

[14] Calder, above n 8.

[15] Judge Tremewan, above n 12.

[16] Interview with Judith Collins, above n 5.

[17] ADLSI LawNews, above n 7.