Two alcohol and drug courts have saved $28.7 million in prison costs over a six year pilot. Reporter Teuila Fuatai spent a day in one of the courts, and got an inside view of what could be one answer to NZ’s unsustainable prison system.

With more than 10,000 people behind bars and total prison costs expected to top $1 billion next year, politicians are desperate for ways to rein in the corrections system.

The problems sometimes seem intractable, the financial and human costs ever-increasing.

But far from the halls of power and policy summits, one approach being employed to stop people offending and going back to prison has had some real success.

Grounded in evidence and criminal justice research, the country’s two Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment (AODT) courts are tasked with handling one of the toughest, and most costly, cohort of offenders: recidivist criminals.

There is a clear pattern in the lives of this cohort. They commit crimes, go to prison, get released, and then start the cycle again.

In the AODT courts, the offenders also have an added layer of complexity – their offending has been clinically assessed as driven by their alcohol and/or drug addiction.

The two Auckland-based pilot courts, set up nearly seven years ago, have shown interesting results.

Of particular note are new figures which show at least $28.7 million in prison costs has been saved through their operations.

Newsroom visited one of the courts, heard from the judge and offenders and looked at the overall success rate of this ongoing ‘pilot’.

The ‘harder’ option

At the Waitakere District Court house, Judge Lisa Tremewan and her AODT court  team are well into a typical Wednesday. It begins with a case-by-case rundown of “participants” who are due to appear.

During the closed court morning session, Tremewan, the prosecuting sergeant, the assigned AODT lawyer, case manager and Matua (elder) Rawiri “Ra” Pene, discuss a participant’s progress through their AODT court-assigned plan.

Unlike ordinary criminal court, the AODT court requires offenders to address the root of their criminal behaviour. In addition to pleading guilty to offences, participants undergo intense, regimented addiction treatment and rehabilitative criminal behaviour programmes. Counselling, community service and mandatory participation in alcohol and/or narcotic anonymous groups are included. Regular and random alcohol and drug testing is also mandatory.

On average, it takes a participant 18 months to complete the court’s requirements. Those who fail to stick to the programme must complete the original, indicated prison sentence they would have received if they had gone through the District Court.

Judge Lisa Tremewan: “It is, by far, the hardest option”. Photo: Supplied

Only recidivist offenders are considered by the court, because research shows that works best. Sexual offenders, and anyone with an indicated prison sentence of more than three years will not be considered.

So far, 167 people have completed sentences handed out by the AODT court. Data shows that the average indicated prison sentence from those “graduates” is 20.6 months. According to Corrections, it costs about $100,000 to keep someone behind bars for 12 months.

Overall, had the 167 AODT court graduates served the average sentence time of 20.6 months, it would have added $28.7 million to prison costs.

As Tremewan puts it: “It is, by far, the hardest option. People who come through here tell us they ‘can do prison’ standing on their heads. That it’s easy. For many of them, a prison term is the only thing they have ever completed. But, getting to the truth of the matter, now that is a completely different story.”

Here are summaries of three of the cases from a day at the Waitakere court:

Case one: Once Were Warriors upbringing

Bradley is well-versed to life behind bars. Covered in tattoos and of Māori descent, the 36-year-old is marking 112 days sober at his AODT court appearance today. The alcohol and methamphetamine addict first entered the criminal justice system at age 15. Over the years, he has been through the Youth Court and committed dozens of offences related to burglary, providing false documents, assault and family violence.

For more than 40 of those charges, he has received time behind bars. For his most recent round of offending, the father of seven received an indicated prison sentence of 34 months. At the moment, he is two weeks out from completing a 16-week programme at the Higher Ground Drug Rehabilitation trust on the Te Atatu Peninsula.

Tremewan: “So, how are things going for you Bradley?”

Barely louder than a whisper, Bradley replies: “Still challenging – scary because I’m coming up to graduating in something hard, which I’ve never done in my whole life.”

In the past week, staff at Higher Ground have raised concerns about some of Bradley’s recent behaviour. They have also questioned whether he should graduate from the programme “because he still has a lot of work left to do”. After discussion by Tremewan and the AODT court team that morning, all agreed that for any outcomes in Bradley’s offending, and life to change, completing the Higher Ground programme was important.

After a few moments, Bradley looks up at Tremewan and continues:

“I’m still hard on myself because I know the old me. I’ve never completed anything in my life. It’s around the corner – a couple of weeks away. Because of me being scared, it’s coming out sideways from myself. I’m getting in trouble at treatment for little things. Maybe, I’m not composing myself properly. I’m just keeping myself in the programme and just concentrating on that. But, I’m doubting myself. I don’t know what achievement is, I don’t know what it feels like, I don’t know what it looks like, and I don’t know how it’s going to be when it finishes.”

Bradley’s upbringing is like something out of Once Were Warriors. The eldest of 10 children, there was significant, serious offending and gang involvement in his family. Domestic violence and childhood victimisation also featured regularly throughout his formative years. As Bradley grew older and had his own children, similar patterns of violent behaviour in the home, gang involvement and offending occurred. As his lawyer says: “Really, he never had a chance. This is it for him.”

Inside court, Tremewan reflects on Bradley’s response, and asks Matua Ra for his input. Like Tremewan, he challenges Bradley on how he views his behaviour and progress.

“Are you successful today,” Matua Ra asks Bradley.

“Because remember, every day in treatment is a good day,” he says.

“This programme is only a 24-hour programme, so where you are today, is clearly the picture. You keep doing today, tomorrow will take care of itself.”

Bradley thinks for a few moments, then, with a gentle nod of his head says “yes”.

Matua Ra: “Kia kaha to that”.

Bradley is due to appear in the AODT court again in two weeks, days before his rehabilitation programme at Higher Ground is supposed to finish. If he does not finish, he will not be able to progress to the next stage of his AODT court treatment plan. At that point, he may have to return to custody, where addiction treatment and rehabilitative criminal behavioural programmes are virtually unavailable.

Case two: The 22-year-old recidivist offender

In his smart, black collared shirt, Phil flashes a cheeky smile at Sergeant Brendan Stewart.

Stewart: “Phil, you’ve come a long way. You’ve managed to keep yourself clean for over a year.”

Today marks 400 days sober for Phil. At just 22-years-old, the cannabis and alcohol addict had already spent time behind bars and was well-known to local police and court staff as a serial offender. Of Tongan and Pālagi descent, Phil was first arrested at age 15. His rap sheet includes burglary offences, serious driving charges, dishonesty offences and breaching court orders.

In March last year, the father-of-three was given an indicated prison sentence of 28 months for his most recent offending. After being assessed as suitable for the AODT court, he spent more than three months in custody waiting for a space to become available at the Salvation Army’s Epsom Lodge.

Phil: “I didn’t know what I was getting into [with the AODT court], but all I could feel was on the other side of the dock – there’s some wellness I can gain from that.

“It hasn’t been easy … you got to do the mahi to get the treats, as they say.”

Tremewan: “What would you say have been some of the challenges for you?”

Phil: “Seeing old friends and just telling them the path that I’m on and they’re still stuck in that world. I had to close that door for all those old using friends. Now, the peers in the court – those are my new friends and family.”

As with his initial appearance in the AODT court, Phil’s parents are on-hand to support him today. As one of six boys, Phil’s access to addiction treatment and behavioural rehabilitative programmes provided through the AODT court has been invaluable to his family. After completing the Salvation Army Bridge treatment course, Phil spent four months at the Wings Trust in Mt Eden. He is now living at home, under strict bail conditions. So far, his sentence has included addiction treatment, anti-violence and parenting programmes, cognitive behavioural therapy and community service. He is also studying to get his restricted drivers licence.

Case three: Spend longer behind bars to get to rehab

Lewis appears via video link from Mt Eden prison. The 40-year-old of Māori descent has an 11-page criminal history dating back to 1995. A father-of-three, addicted to methamphetamine, alcohol and cannabis, Lewis’ assessment by clinicians indicate he would respond well to interventions through an AODT court sentence.

Unfortunately, scarcity of rehabilitative programme spaces has meant he has nearly served his entire 15 month District Court sentence. While Tremewan and her team this week received confirmation from the Salvation Army Bridge programme that it could take Lewis, a spot would not be available for another two months. Because Lewis’ indicated prison sentence finishes in four weeks, to take on the AODT court sentence likely means choosing an extended stay in custody.

Tremewan: “How you feeling about that Lewis?”

Lewis: “A  bit up and down at the moment because I know I’ve only got four weeks to serve of my sentence. I don’t think I can wait two more months.”

Tremewan: “I can hear your frustration. But what do you think will happen Lewis if you finish your sentence?”

During his time in custody, Lewis has told matua Ra he does not think he can stay sober on his own. He believes his best chance at addressing his offending and addictions are through an AODT court sentence. As a child and teenager, Lewis was sexually abused by an older male. His father was also extremely violent. His criminal history includes assault, driving, trespass and wilful damage offences.

Lewis: “I do want to do the programme but I don’t want to stay behind these walls and wait for two more months.”

Tremewan: “It’s your choice. What I can tell you is the court is basically full. Today, I’ve got … one place and I’ve got 14 people who’ve applied, waiting to try and get a place. So, it’s always up to participants if they get a place, what they do with it.

“At the moment, this is your place, it’s your spot in the court.”

There is a high risk that these offenders will continue to do what they have done – cycling and recycling through the criminal justice system.

Judge Lisa Tremewan

Changing criminals

After a long sitting day, Tremewan reflects on how far her team, and the AODT court, has come in juggling people across the criminal justice, health and probation spaces.

Everything which occurs in the AODT court follows evidence-based best practice, she says. A huge emphasis is placed on moral reconation therapy, which targets how offenders think about moral issues and committing offences. Even the order of appearance on sitting days emphasises the accomplishments of those who have done well in treatment, and “penalises” those who have slipped up.

Tremewan: “The ‘A team’ gets called first – that’s everyone who is doing well. If you’re in the ‘B team’, you’re made to wait all day before being called.”

“Criminals in this court aren’t just people in active addiction, they are offenders in active addiction. The court needs to provide a treatment programme which includes things that challenge their criminal thinking.”

At the moment, places in each of the AODT courts are capped at 50, respectively. Tremewan oversees the Waitakere court, and Judge Ema Aitken oversees the Auckland court. Members of teams from both courts will switch regularly to ensure practices are consistent.

Both judges also keep diligent records of those who come through the AODT courts.

As Tremewan flicks through files from some of the first participants, she describes how processes have developed since the court’s early operating days. For example, each of the participants must now report back to her or Aitken after completing the court’s programme. Initially, graduates were not monitored. Changing that requirement has reduced reoffending and relapse. Participants also need to be in employment or studying before being released by the AODT court.

Tremewan: “The research makes it clear that the best cohort for the alcohol and drug treatment court are cases where there is a moderate to severe alcohol or other drug dependency, coupled with a high risk of non-compliance.

“We are very careful about applying evidence-based best practice to look for people who meet the strict criteria. There is a high risk that these offenders will continue to do what they have done – cycling and recycling through the criminal justice system.”

Research around recidivist offending also shows those who complete alcohol and other drug court sentences commit less serious crimes if they do reoffend.

The stats

Of the court’s 167 graduates, 97 have not reoffended, translating to a reduction in recidivism of 58 percent. Notably, overseas courts with the best results have a 35 percent reduction in recidivism.

Tentatively, Tremewan assesses the numbers. She takes a conservative approach to results of the pilot:

“Our results are sitting comfortably with the best of the courts overseas. I do appreciate that our courts have not been going overly long, and there may be some further adjustment.

“However, it is well known that for this high risk offender [group], their reoffending could usually be expected to happen quickly. It is also crucial to note that much of this reoffending is very minor. For example, a breach of an intensive supervision sentence, when in fact the the participant is actually doing quite well.”

Of those who have reoffended in the Auckland AODT courts, 12 percent were imprisoned.

Tremewan: “It’s no magic wand, but we know the results are much better than the usual outcomes for this group”.

The perennial criminal justice issue

In the US, drug and alcohol courts have been operating since the late 1980s. Currently, more than 4000 exist across the country. In Texas, some prisons have closed in favour of more alcohol and drug courts. Other jurisdictions which have the courts include Australia, the UK and Canada. International research also shows that for every dollar spent on alcohol and drug treatment courts, $2 is saved in criminal justice costs.

Despite this, lawmakers at home still appear limited to tinkering with the status-quo, rather than substantive change in the criminal justice system.  

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis: We haven’t made any legislative changes, we’ve just found inefficiencies in the system and changed them; low-hanging fruit.”

In an interview with Newsroom, Justice Minister Andrew Little is positive about the AODT courts, but says any expansion will not occur before a final impact evaluation. This is due to be completed next year.

An interim-evaluation took place four years ago, and showed positive progress.

“I have a personal and principled commitment to seeing more of this, but there is a commitment to doing a more formal evaluation of the court,” he says.

“That is underway. Following that, [will be] the basis for making my bid for more resourcing to see more of them.”

Little also alludes to the challenges of pushing for long-term change.

“This is the whole question in the broader criminal justice system. Treasury kind of weighs it every time. There might be greater resources needed at the front-end, but if that means that is resulting in fewer people going to prison, and we are still reducing the reoffending rate significantly and materially, then … that is the right place to put the resources rather than at the far end when it is kind of too late.”

However, for those who understand the improved outcomes achieved through AODT courts, waiting for another evaluation is a tough ask. Feedback from the recent Justice Summit in Wellington included queries around when other parts of New Zealand would have access to AODT courts.

As drink driving researcher Gerald Waters puts it: “I’ve also looked at all offending in New Zealand – 80 percent of crime is alcohol and drug related. It’s obvious that you shouldn’t be having drug court once a week – you should be having it six days a week with one day for normal crime”.

Notes on AODT court cases included in this article:

Pseudonyms for participants have been used.

Bradley completed his Higher Ground programme. He is doing well in the next stage of his treatment plan, and is living at a post-treatment recovery house.

Phil gained his restricted licence and completed a driver safety programme. He is looking at finding employment opportunities in the trades area.

Lewis elected to exit the AODT court, and finish his prison sentence on time. At last contact with Tremewan, he said he would pursue rehabilitation programmes on his own.

Read more:

A confronting start for a drink driving expert

Davis: Prison system crisis averted for now

Leave a comment