Antonia Fisher: 'Treatment' courts a milestone for judges

Eighty per cent of all criminal offending involves alcohol or drugs - mostly alcohol.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
Eighty per cent of all criminal offending involves alcohol or drugs - mostly alcohol. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Early tomorrow morning, two new courts will be blessed in ceremonies that could mark the start of a significant addition to the justice sector.

The Alcohol and Drug Treatment Courts will be established at the Auckland and Waitakere District Courts.

The Auckland Medico-Legal Society, a group of over 300 of Auckland's doctors and lawyers, welcomes the Government's commitment to the specialised courts.

Earlier this year, Judge Ema Aitken, who with Judge Lisa Tremewan initiated the pilot programme, spoke to the society.

Judge Aitken emphasised that the ongoing "catch-release-catch again" cycle in the justice and corrections systems, where offenders are imprisoned, released, and then reoffend, does not work for anyone.

It does not work for the offender or their family, victims, the staff working in the justice and corrections systems, or the taxpayer.

Eighty per cent of all criminal offending involves alcohol or drugs - mostly alcohol. Where the cause of the offending is linked to an alcohol or drug addiction, the offending will likely continue until the dependency is successfully treated.

Given that a very small proportion of the prison population receives alcohol or drug addiction treatment while in prison, offenders with drug or alcohol addiction are highly likely to fall into the "catch-release-catch again" cycle. These offenders tend to cost a significant amount across the health, justice and social-service sectors.

So how will the drug courts work?

Offenders who have pleaded guilty to an offence (excluding arson, serious violence or sexual offences), who are dependent on alcohol or other drugs and at high risk of reoffending and who would otherwise be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of up to three years, will be eligible to be admitted to the drug courts programme.

Once admitted, the court will provide the offender with appropriate treatment before sentencing. This is a new approach - at present, treatment is not integrated into the criminal justice system.

Treatment will involve targeted, multi-disciplinary interventions, where health professionals will work with the judge responsible for ultimately sentencing the offender.

Offenders will appear in the same court and before the same judge throughout the programme. They will be required to comply with a treatment plan imposed by the courts, which includes mandatory drug testing, attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and driving bans.

The process is expected to take between 12 and 18 months, with the individual appearing in court frequently throughout the process. The process will often be the first time that a judge or any one in authority has taken a genuine interest in the individual.

The new courts are abstinence based: abstinence is the aim, and honesty about use of drugs or alcohol is mandatory.

Once a participant has completed the treatment plan, been clean for at least 180 days, has a relapse prevention plan in place, and is in work, training or education, then they can graduate from the programme.

The individual will then be sentenced in accordance with the principles of the Sentencing Act 2002. The sentences are expected to be anything from a conviction and discharge to home detention. The sentence will depend on the offence committed, the progress through the programme and all of the other factors a judge would normally take into account in sentencing.

Data will be collected about the effectiveness of the programme. The system is based on an American model that has been proven to be effective for more than 20 years. The American Drug Courts have been proven to not only reduce reoffending but also save significant money.

The society commends the two judges for this bold and much-needed initiative, which has the potential to make a real difference.

Barrister Antonia Fisher is president of the Auckland Medico-Legal Society.

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