Two specialised drug courts will be set up in Auckland by early next year, targeting addictions in a bid to dramatically reduce recidivism.
The courts would be a first for New Zealand, as they would be different from the Drug Court based at the Christchurch Youth Court.
Drug courts overseas have had generally positive results in turning around the lives of offenders, with some dramatic cases.
"One guy now has a doctorate. One is a district attorney. They were users on serious drug matters," said District Court Judge Lisa Tremewan, who is leading the initiative with District Court Judge Ema Aitken.
"Obviously that's not going to be everyone, but it can happen, and it's better than what we're doing now," Judge Tremewan said.
She said the courts had made an impact on recidivism rates overseas, and it was a "no brainer" to introduce them to New Zealand.
"The real question is why we haven't done this sooner."
One 2006 study showed drug courts in the United States and Canada had reduced crime rates by between 8 and 26 per cent.
A 2008 report on the Drug Court in New South Wales found offenders were 38 per cent less likely to be reconvicted of a drug offence, and 17 per cent less likely to be reconvicted of any offence.
About 80 per cent of criminal offending in New Zealand happens under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but the justice system orders treatment only as or after a sentence is imposed.
Drug assessments for offenders on probation or community sentences rely on self-reporting, meaning offenders can claim to be clean and are taken at their word.
A important difference in a Drug Court would be to engage an offender before sentencing.
A court-based clinician would test and assess an offender - at present this is rarely done - and the court would include wrap-around services in an individual plan of frequent intervention and mandatory drug tests.
Judge Tremewan said the offender would be sentenced after completing the plan.
If they had showed real progress, the outcome could be a reduced or suspended sentence.
"The goal is to get them clean and reduce recidivism," she said.
"People would be taken aback if they realised the extent to which the courts see repeat drink drivers. "We know from the research overseas that the drug court is most effective with the hardest group.
"We want to target heavy-duty criminals. Otherwise we'll be using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut."
"These are people who often have done prison before, and nothing has worked.
"The court has the ability to hold the hope for them until such a time as they can hold it themselves. That may sound airy-fairy, but that happens."
The Law Commission, in its review of the Misuse of Drugs Act, supported a pilot for drug courts, subject to available funding.
A spokesman for Justice Minister Simon Power said the minister was in Australia and could not comment, but he was aware of discussions about drug courts.
The judiciary is setting up two Drug Courts in Auckland by next year.
What are they?
Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts
Based in a District Court. An offender with an addiction problem meets criteria - including admitting their offending - and is sent to a Drug Court.
Drug Courts can demand mandatory drug testing and drug assessments, frequent intervention and the involvement of community services such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and treatment programmes.
Properly resourced Drug Courts can reduce crime by up to 26 per cent, research shows.By Derek Cheng Email Derek