Judges: Drug and alcohol court will save lives

By Edward Gay

File photo / NZ Herald
File photo / NZ Herald

A new court designed to tackle the underlying causes of crime will save lives and money, say judges.

Two new courts opened in Waitakere and central Auckland this morning will deal with about 100 people with alcohol and drug dependency issues in its first year of operation.

Costing $2 million, the courts will take on those who have pleaded guilty, face a term of at least three years in prison and show a willingness to change their ways.

They will be put through an intense programme designed to turn their lives around and, if they are successful, their efforts will be taken into account at sentencing.

The court has been years in the planning and draws on research from around the world.

One of its staunchest supporters is Lifewise court worker Michelle Kidd, who was described at this morning's opening ceremony as the woman who works with the "mad, the bad, the sad and the distressed''.

Inside her Auckland District Court office, Ms Kidd choked back tears as she pointed to a photo of one of the men she worked with who spent much of his life in and out of the courthouse.

A chronic alcoholic, the man was addicted to methylated spirits and died earlier this year. He was still in his 40s and had 39 pages of previous convictions.

Ms Kidd holds him up as an example of a man who may still be alive if he had been helped by one of the courts.

Judge Ema Aitken of the Auckland District Court and her colleague Judge Lisa Tremewan at Waitakere District Court said there could be many more like the 40-year-old.

Judge Tremewan used the example of a chronic drink driver who does their time in prison but comes out with their alcohol addiction untreated.

Domestic violence is another potential life-taker that often involves alcohol.

Asked whether the courts could be a soft option for offenders, both judges were emphatic that the real soft option was for prisoners to avoid facing up to demons, do their time and re-enter the life interrupted by prison.

But under the new system, judges will have the power to remove offenders from their homes if they believe their environment is not supportive.

They will also be closely monitored by experienced case managers to ensure they are not falling off the wagon.

Judge Aitken said she and Judge Tremewan have come across prisoners who have said: 'If I had known it was this hard, I would have opted for prison'.

The other advantage both judges point to is the potential money saved in police time, court cases, prison space and the social costs to victims and their families.

Judge Tremewan said there are 2600 similar courts in the US and the number has increased, despite Federal budget cuts.

She said many of those that come before the courts with alcohol and drugs problems are on benefits but she has met people who have come through the US model and are now proud to be taxpayers.

"It gives them the opportunity to learn work and life skills.''

Judge Aitken said there will also be an opportunity for more Restorative Justice programmes and opportunities for offenders to give back to the community.

"Offenders are horrified when they come out of the fog,'' Judge Aitken said.

She said many people want to give something back to society.

Justice Minister Judith Collins said the programme would save money in the long run.

She said the court was not an easy way out for offenders who will have to commit to the scheme and have a high motivation for change.

"By looking at offending holistically, and taking into account the circumstances that have motivated the offending, we can help prevent these offenders from going on to commit further crimes.''

- APNZ

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