Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Justice - laced with redemption

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There is plenty of support for those taking part in a pilot drug rehabilitation programme, but it's not an easy option.

Judge Ema Aitken deals with offenders at the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court at the Auckland District Court. Photo / Dean Purcell
Judge Ema Aitken deals with offenders at the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court at the Auckland District Court. Photo / Dean Purcell

They start work early on Fridays in Courtroom 15 at the Auckland District Court. By 8:30, the room is full. I am warmly welcomed by a blonde woman who, it takes me some time to realise, is Judge Ema Aitken.

The problem is that her authority is not explicit in the seating arrangements. She's not peering down at lawyers arranged in ranks. Tables are arranged in a horseshoe shape that reflects the shared purpose of those sitting at them.

No one says "your Honour"; there's a "Judge" here, a "ma'am" there and Aitken refers to everyone collectively as "team", as in "Team, what are we going to do here?" It's strikingly different from the standard, adversarial set-up.

But this is a strikingly different court. The Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court doesn't concern itself with proving the guilt of those who come before it. They have all pleaded guilty and been convicted; it's the price of admission. Defendants who are offered and accept a place have their sentencing adjourned while they undergo treatment for their alcohol or drug dependency.

The underlying reality is that alcohol and other drug abuse walks hand-in-hand with crime - particularly violent crime. More than half of crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Two of every three sentenced prisoners say that they have alcohol or drug dependence.

The idea is that treating the cause of the offending rather than the offending itself has more chance of preventing reoffending than yet another dose of the punishment that has so spectacularly failed.

This is not, as some may imagine, an easy option. Participants must undergo treatment as and when directed; submit to testing, at least twice a week, to confirm they are staying clean; and all the time they will be doing community work.

At the morning pre-court hearing, Aitken and her team - police prosecutor, defence lawyers, social workers, drug treatment experts - work through the details of four new applicants for admission. One, whom Aitken describes colourfully as "a prolific, recidivist, versatile offender" has a bad history of violence. He's rejected. Another, convicted of sex offences 16 years ago, prompts an intense discussion of how long the rule holds true that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.

Watching from the back, I'm impressed by the combination of brisk efficiency and humour. There are occasional explosions of laughter, but they take 15 minutes for morning tea and when I come back after 12, they've already started again. And nobody's driven by sentiment here. A lawyer who says he can "see real potential" in his client is told by the judge that "we love your optimism", and asked to reconsider his record.

The Youth Court has been running a version of this for some years but the adult version is just into the second year of a five-year pilot at Waitakere and Auckland. It's too early to say how successful it is. It's had its dropouts: the US system on which it is based has a 60 per cent dropout rate but, Aitken told me, those who failed to complete the programme reoffended less than those who never entered it.

Their first "graduates" are expected in September. Aitken says that the details of how they will be acknowledged are still being hammered out.

"It needs to be low-key and in keeping with the fact that this is a criminal court," she told her team, adding that they needed to be very aware of how it would appear to victims when perpetrators' successes were celebrated.

But celebration there is in the afternoon when the court sits in public. The gallery is full of supporters as participants appear to report on progress.

The court's Maori name, Te Whare Whakapiki Wairua, speaks of the raising of the spirit. It seemed an apt term to apply to the sight of the tall and handsome Maori man who shouldered his baby as he spoke to the judge about his 477 days of law-abiding sobriety. He faced her proudly, with none of the downcast sullenness that defendants commonly display in court. Everyone in court gave him a round of applause, and he smiled as Aitken congratulated him with evident sincerity.

"The praise and the accolades are yours," she said. "You have done what you have done with the support of this court - but you have done it. And it is important for people who are looking to see if there is a better way."

- NZ Herald

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