Cross Examination: The Alcohol and Other Drugs Treatment Court: A New Hope?

By Hart Reynolds

“This Court is not an easy option” reads the participant handbook given to those accepted into the Alcohol and Other Drugs Treatment Court (AODTC). The Court requires full commitment from participants to work with case managers, peer supporters and the community to confront the symptoms and, crucially, the underlying causes of their addiction. The AODTC was established in a five-year pilot in 2012 with the aim to reduce recidivism by empowering individuals to break the cycle of addiction and crime. In June 2017, the National Government extended the pilot for three more years.

New Zealand has the seventh highest rate of incarceration in the OECD.[1] Although Maori make up 14% of the overall population, they represent over 50% of the prison population.[2] As of June 2017, 13% of the prison population was incarcerated for drug offences, and 20% incarcerated for crimes of dishonesty such as theft.[3] The Department of Corrections reported that two thirds of prisoners in New Zealand have substance abuse problems.[4] In 2017, the Government planned to spend $900 million housing prisoners in New Zealand.[5] Former Prime Minister Bill English announced the National Government would spend one billion dollars to create 1500 more beds in Waikeria prison and in September last year the provision of an additional 500 beds were announced.[6] These ballooning prison rates are attributed to many factors, including stricter sentencing, more domestic violence convictions and higher rates of reoffending by drug users. The economic and social costs of such high imprisonment rates have been well documented by the Equal Justice Project (see these great articles). Our high imprisonment rates cannot be solved overnight; there is no easy solution. But by decreasing addiction in our communities, we can begin to improve lives and the statistics.

What is the Alcohol and Other Drugs Court?

The special Maori name for the AODTC, ‘Te Whare Whakapiki Wairua’ was gifted by Dr Pita Sharples and translates to ‘the house where one’s spirit is uplifted’. The Court was established by Judge Ema Aitken and Judge Lisa Tremewan. It applies evidence-based best practices from treatment courts in other jurisdictions such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. Research from these courts has shown they not only reduce reoffending among participants, but also save money.[7] A meta-analysis of drug courts across multiple jurisdictions found that rates of recidivism are reduced by 38-50% among participants compared to non-participants. The review recommended further funding and development of these courts.[8] As of September 2017 in New Zealand, there have been 127 graduates of the Court.

The goal of the court is not just to reduce reoffending rates, but also to positively transform an individual’s life. Individuals may choose to apply to the AODTC after a criminal conviction. They must then be accepted into the Court by the Judge, which has strict eligibility guidelines for participants. These include, but are not limited to, residing in Auckland or Waitakere, having an alcohol or drug addiction and being convicted of offending which is driven by their alcohol or other drug dependence. Participants cannot have a mental illness that would prevent them from engaging with the treatment process, nor can they have a conviction for sexual offending, arson or serious violence. Once accepted into the court, every participant has a case manager and a personalised treatment plan, as well as a defence lawyer and a special parole officer, and can reconnect with their iwi under the guidance of a Pou Oranga (Maori adviser).

How does the Court function?

The Court’s focus is on community and responsibility. Community is vital to the functioning of the Court, which is why a participant must reside in Auckland or Waitakere. To succeed within the Court, and after graduating, participants need the support of their family or friends. Support is also provided by organisations like Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and the Wings Trust, and previous graduates play a mentoring role to new participants. For Maori and Pasifika offenders there is an emphasis on reconnecting with cultural and spiritual roots. Rather than isolating addicts from the community as prison does, the Court immerses them within it, empowering them to seek employment, friends and a life within the community.

Clear responsibilities and consequences are given to participants in the court. They are given clear bail instructions and goals, and must achieve the requirements of their treatment plan. Those who fail a sobriety test, do not attend the support groups or breach bail face consequences ranging from being called last on court days, having increased monitoring or, as a last resort, being terminated from the program. Participants are rewarded with vouchers and books when they meet the requirements of their plan, reach milestones and graduate up a phase in the plan.

The team behind the AODTC are very aware of the well-established link between trauma and substance abuse.[9] Participants attend counselling sessions to help them recognise and confront the underlying causes of their addiction. Facing this reality is not the easy option. Overcoming addiction can be much more confronting than sitting in a prison cell. However, when participants are successful, there is a positive effect on their immediate family, wider whanau and community.

The global growth in popularity of drug treatment courts instead of penal sentences reflects the growing international recognition that drug addiction is a social problem. A famous study called ‘Rat Park’ by Bruce K. Alexander in 1981 concluded that addiction is caused by lack of human connection and purpose.[10] It predicted that the ‘War on Drugs’ would inevitably fail, as it isolated addicts from society and failed to treat the causes of addiction. It recommended we should invest in stronger community support, mental health services and specialist courts like the AODTC.

In June 2017, the government agreed to a three-year extension of the AODTC pilot.  Reports on the Court carried out by the Ministry of Justice suggest that it has directly saved 60 prison places and reduced reoffending rates, as well as increased employment and improved outcomes for participants and their families, especially their children. Current data show that the Court has created a net annual saving in the order of $1.6 million.[11] Despite these acknowledged benefits, there appears to have been a lack of political will to extend the program beyond Auckland and Waitakere. The Ministry of Justice argued they need more data on its impact on long term recidivism rates. However, early data show the pilot court has mirrored the success of similar courts overseas and is therefore likely to have the same positive long-term outcomes.

The pilot AODT Courts are operating at capacity and currently there is a maximum of 100 participants at any time within the program. Waiting lists to enter the program can be up to three months and many eligible participants are turned away as they live outside Auckland and Waitakere. There are valid reasons that must be taken into account when considering expanding the program.  Much of its success relies on the relationships established between local organisations, groups and iwi in Auckland and Waitakere. These key community and support networks must be present if the success of the Auckland and Waitakere Courts is to be recreated.

While changing the habits of an individual or of government is not the easy approach, it is vital that we curb society’s addiction for simply locking up offenders with drug and alcohol problems, out of sight of the community. As one of the defence lawyers at the court told me, you can increase sentencing and make bail harsher, but these people will inevitably be released into the community, so wouldn’t it be better for them to be a functioning member of the community?

The day I visited the Court, a participant was graduating after 17 months. Friends and family filled the courtroom and spilled outside to watch the sentencing and celebrate the achievement. The joyous excitement was palpable. Loved ones spoke about the transformational effect the Court had on the participant, their family and the wider community. There were few dry eyes in the crowd. Judge Aitkin reminded the participant that sobriety requires a lifetime of effort but that it was a lifetime of new opportunities, purpose and hope. This impact is one that statistics alone cannot capture. I am sure many tears have been shed in courtrooms over the centuries, but I think it is rare for a courtroom to be filled with tears of hope.

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[1] “New Zealand in the OECD” Stats NZ <archive.stats.govt.nz>.

[2] “Prison facts and statistics – June 2017” Department of Corrections <www.corrections.govt.nz>.

[3] Above n 2.

[4] “Tackling alcohol and drug abuse” (August 2013) Department of Corrections <www.corrections.govt.nz>.

[5] Isaac Davidson “Soaring Costs of Our Prisons – $900m Per Year” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, 2 June 2016).

[6] Wilhelmina Shrimpton “National Party Wants 500 More Spaces at Waikeria Prison” Newshub (online ed, 16 September 2017).

[7] See various studies from Portland, New Jersey and the United Kingdom: NPC Research The Impact of a Mature Drug Court Over 10 Years of Operation: Recidivism and Costs: Executive Summary (April 2007); Steph Hunter and others “New Jersey’s Drug Courts: A Fundamental Shift From The War On Drugs To A Public Health Approach For Drug Addiction And Drug-Related Crime” (2012) 64 Rutgers L Rev 795;
Judy Jones “Drug Treatment Beats Prison for Cutting Crime and Addiction Rates” (1999) 319 BMJ 470.

[8] Ojmarrh Mitchell and others “Assessing the Effectiveness of Drug Courts on Recidivism: A Meta-Analytic Review of Traditional and Non-Traditional Drug Courts” (2012) 40 Journal of Criminal Justice 60.

[9] K M Bailey and S H Stewart “Relations Among Trauma, PTSD, and Substance Misuse: The Scope of the Problem” in Paige Ouimette and Jennifer Read (eds) Trauma and Substance Abuse: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment of Comorbid Disorders (American Psychological Association, Washington DC, 2014) 11.

[10] Bruce K. Alexander and others “Effect of Early and Later Colony Housing on Oral Ingestion of Morphine in Rats” (1981) 15 Pharmacology Biochemistry & Behavior 571.

[11] Report-back on the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court Pilot and other AOD-related Initiatives (Ministry of Justice, June 2017).