Law finds room for homeless

By Catherine Masters

People who qualify to attend the new court are given a chance to turn their lives around. Photo / Greg Bowker
People who qualify to attend the new court are given a chance to turn their lives around. Photo / Greg Bowker

The policeman in the public gallery of Court Room Five, Auckland District Court, leans across and whispers that when solvent abusers sweat, which they do a lot, they actually sweat out solvents. "They can get high on their own sweat," he says - "it's an awful addiction."

Welcome to the first sitting of a special new court for the city's homeless.

A Maori woman in her 30s is appearing before Judge Tony Fitzgerald. She is a bit sunken around the eyes and hunches over, looking small in a woolly jacket and track pants, her dusty feet in a pair of jandals.

She has removed her green beanie so her hair looks a little wild as she sits next to the lawyer assigned to her case.

The woman is here on a charge of driving under the influence of a drug but really she is signing up for major life changes.

As part of a treatment plan worked out for her, she will attend the Salvation Army's Bridge programme for drug and alcohol addiction and she will detoxify.

There are other components to her plan. She owes well over $3000 in unpaid fines, but if she sticks to the plan and does well, this may be reduced over time.

People who qualify to come to this new court will still be sentenced but they are also given a chance to improve their lives, though it may not be easy for them.

They must undertake to confront underlying issues which have seen them living on the street or in and out of hostels or spending their nights "sofa-surfing" at friends or acquaintances.

They will have committed crimes which come under the category of "chronic public space offending". This can be anything from a breach of a liquor ban to wilful damage or fighting, but only fighting which is judged minor - serious sexual offences or serious violence do not qualify for admission.

Offenders who do qualify will also have ongoing mental illness and/or addictions, or be intellectually impaired through either injury or disability. Some will have been to court over and over for minor offences where they may have been given fines they have no way of paying.

Sometimes an exasperated judge may send them for a stint in prison.

This new court is about trying to reduce this happening and that's why also here today are representatives from a large range of agencies - Winz, the Salvation Army, police, mental health services, alcohol and drug services, housing services, Lifewise (the Methodist Mission), and others.

This is the second specialist court Judge Fitzgerald will preside over.

He also runs a successful specialist youth court for Auckland's toughest young criminals - and he hopes these sorts of courts will keep on coming.

They are modelled on hundreds of such courts in the United States, where they are known as problem-solving courts and range from ones trying to help the drug-addicted to others targeting teenage mums.

Australia, too, has similar courts - Alaska even has a specialist court for veterans of the Armed Services.

The courts all dispense "therapeutic justice," which often means lashings of what can be self-confronting and long-term therapy accompany the more traditional reparation to victims or sentences of hours of community service.

And they work. Judge Fitzgerald has had striking success with the youth court he started three years ago for youths on a rapid pathway to adult prison.

When we spoke to him earlier, he said that since that court began there had been very few failures - even the most forensically unsafe youths had responded to the targeted interventions.

Courts like these represent a sea change in how the justice system will operate in New Zealand, the judge said. They wouldn't replace normal courts but would add to them and become part of the legal landscape.

Marae-based youth courts are already springing up around the country and a specialist youth drug court has existed in Christchurch for some years.

The judge hinted we may see a specialist drug court for adults in Auckland before too long - which he says we need because statistics suggest alcohol and drugs are implicated in around 80 per cent of people who come to court.

It is much cheaper, the judge believes, to treat the underlying causes of offending for many people than sending them to prison.

The homeless are a good example. A few years ago an American project known as Million Dollar Murray investigated the different costs incurred by a homeless man, from visits to the Emergency Department to soup kitchens - and found Murray cost US$1 million a year to keep.

Also at the new homeless court yesterday was John McCarthy, manager of Lifewise (the Methodist Mission) which provides services for homeless people. McCarthy visited Brisbane in 2008 and while there saw that city's homeless court in action and was impressed.

"I came back to Auckland and was talking to the senior sergeant for Downtown Police and he said 'this is exactly what we need, my boys have arrested the same guy 15 times in the last couple of months.'

"There's just this endless kind of merry-go-round through the court - we need to do something differently."

Mc Carthy lobbied the district court and this new court is the result.

It's not touchy-feely justice, he says firmly.

It is about modernising our approach to justice.

Prison has not worked for the people appearing here - in fact, prison has had almost no impact at all on these people, he says.

"These folk, the vast majority of the ones we've seen, have had appalling family backgrounds with violence that you'd never get in jail, they've been treated appallingly on the streets, they've been in institutions that have been enormously difficult experiences for them and jail - it's no great deterrent."

McCarthy says it might surprise the public but the homeless do not want to live this way - no one wants to live in a shop doorway or under a bridge.

"Your life has to be hell of a bad before you would make that choice. Most of these folk have fallen through the gaps in our social systems and our prisons and mental health system and foster care."

At the first session yesterday, only two homeless people appeared.

A man with one arm was in the dock and had a long list of public nuisance charges - including breaches of the liquor ban, counts of wilful damage, offensive behaviour, disorderly behaviour and assault.

He stood looking a bit anxious made virtually no eye contact.

Judge Fitzgerald returned him to custody pending further information on the services he needed, and turned his attention to the woman, who he addressed loudly but nicely.

When she had first entered the court the judge had tried to speak to her but she had tapped her ear.

"Hearing issues?" he questioned.

She had wandered up to where he was sitting on the bench so she could hear him. He grinned and told he would speak up and for her to go and sit down. He talked about her treatment plan and explained her bail conditions prior to taking part in the Bridge programme - she must live at a particular Auckland address, she must have no contact whatsoever with her partner and there must be no solvent use - "no glue, no solvents".

The judge then asked her if she could keep that last rule.

She nodded, but Karol Hadlow, her lawyer, whispered to her, "that means no solvents seven days a week."

After some discussion about whether she could stay off the glue for that long, Judge Fitzgerald forbade her to take solvents on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Cost-effective

* The Victoria Department of Justice last year released an evaluation of a similar court system which began in 2007.

* It found there were significant cost savings - it was estimated the court would break even after only two years due to reduced reoffending.

* For every dollar invested, savings of between A$1.70 and $5.90 were predicted.

- NZ Herald

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