After a successful pilot, it’s time to introduce more Adult Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts – now, writes criminology student Toni Myers 

A solution to high prison rates, drug addiction, violence, unemployment and family breakdown –  sounds like criminal justice nirvana? The Adult Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment (AODT) Courts have proven success in addressing these huge challenges in some of our high risk, high needs offenders. But there are just two such courts in New Zealand – in Waitakere (West Auckland) and Auckland central – and they are still only pilot projects after six years of diverting repeat offenders from further prison time and turning their lives around.

At last week’s Aotearoa AODT Conference in Auckland Justice Minister Andrew Little refused to commit to permanent establishment of the courts or to rolling them out elsewhere, despite personal support for the concept and a unanimous vote from delegates that an ongoing pilot was an unnecessary further delay. Little acknowledged that he had mayors and others “knocking on his door” to be first in line for an AODT Court in their locations and that with Corrections’ own figures showing a 60 percent recidivism rate within two years of release and two thirds of prisoners having a substance abuse problem, “the system is not doing its job effectively”. (Corrections research in fact shows that 91 percent of prisoners have a lifetime diagnosis of a substance use disorder.) Little was attracted to the AODT Court because “it deals with the drivers of offending”, adding that the Government is impressed with the courts’ work. “Changing offenders so they stop offending is the best thing we can do to reduce the offending rate.”

There were at least a dozen judges from New Zealand and overseas among the conference delegates and without exception they supported and admired the work of the AODT Courts with several New Zealand judges calling for them in their districts. As one speaker pointed out, New Zealand was ‘late to the party’ with this courts model which focuses on multi-agency involvement and support for what is an illness, Substance Use Disorder (SUD), requiring treatment. The US has about 4000 such courts and they are now operating in 20 countries. The New Zealand model has been lauded for its pioneering work in embedding tikanga Māori into the court processes which all participants – including non-Māori – identify as critical to its success here. The treatment programme is not the ‘soft option’ that some assume, requiring behavioural changes that are, according to the legal and other professionals involved, amongst the hardest challenges individuals can face.

In a frequently emotionally-charged two-day conference, delegates heard from graduates of the courts and witnessed a moving ceremony honouring a graduate who had progressed from treatment to giving peer support to subsequent offender participants, to working as a counsellor in the field. One of the AODTC judges, all of whom are very invested in the success of the process, had initially strongly doubted the ability of this former offender to successfully complete the programme. The graduate said that without the AODT Court intervention he would now be either dead or in prison, but instead he was highly motivated to give back to the system that had allowed him to reclaim his life and to help others as he had been helped. His children still had a father and he was leading a personally fulfilling life, fully employed and contributing greatly to society, including counselling within the prison system. Other graduates spoke of reconnection with family and whānau, new engagement in the workforce and one passed on a message of thanks from her sons to the court, for giving them their mum back.

An independent evaluation of the pilot in 2016 reported that all stakeholders believed that the AODT Court was delivering transformational change for graduates and their whānau. Participants who did not complete the programme also benefited from understanding the recovery journey and support services available. But the report recommended further evaluation and Little says results from additional evaluation, which will include both quantitative and qualitative analysis, will be available later in the year. In purely financial terms this analysis will no doubt compare the cost of the programme relative to the $100,000+ per annum to house each prisoner. It will be harder to quantify the benefits to whānau and the community (including the savings from crime reduction, healthcare and other support services) and the flow-on effects of employment and community engagement by former offenders whose untreated SUD illness extracts very high economic and social costs. Research shows community engagement is doubled – and therefore communities made safer- from those in recovery compared with those who have never suffered from addiction.

The more than 200 delegates – including judges, lawyers, police, Justice Ministry and Corrections Department employees, treatment professionals and academics – saw no need for further delays to reducing the harm caused by alcohol and other drug addictions. So where is the courageous leadership that says this is the right thing to do? The Government says it wants to reduce the prison population, address drug and mental health issues and the causes of poverty and inequality, and here is a solution that goes a long way to dealing with some of the worst effects of these scourges. We do not need a longer pilot. We need more of these courts and we need them now.

Toni Myers is a post-graduate student in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington.

Leave a comment