Mike Williams: Alcohol court a lifesaver

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Former Justice Minister Simon Power. Photo / NZPA
Former Justice Minister Simon Power. Photo / NZPA

Few politicians leave behind anything much of value. Former Justice Minister Simon Power is an exception.

I witnessed his legacy in action when I spent a riveting day at the Waitakere Alcohol and Other Drugs Treatment Court.

This pilot court, plus another in the Auckland District Court, has a short but interesting history.

When retired businessman Tony Gibbs became involved in the Howard League three years ago, one of his major objectives was to investigate ways of keeping people out of jail.

He persuaded me to accompany him to the American Embassy for an address by retired Californian Judge Peggy Hora, who pioneered alcohol and drug courts in the United States.

These courts are now a confirmed feature of the American judicial landscape and were developed after the US Supreme Court defined overcrowding in jails as a "cruel and unusual punishment" and therefore unconstitutional. To help avoid the crippling expense of new prisons, the focus moved to keeping offenders out of jail. Hora was insightful and entertaining. When told that jailing someone in New Zealand cost the taxpayer $92,000 each year, she said "it would be cheaper to send them to Harvard".

Courts Minister Chester Borrows was there and he must have been listening.

Alcohol and drug courts offer an alternative to jail, but it's not a soft option, as I quickly discovered.

The 15 defendants I saw were evenly split between chronic repeat drunk drivers and serious general offenders.

For nearly all of them the problem was the booze, though addiction to methamphetamine and other drugs also featured.

To avoid a jail sentence, they must commit to sobriety, which is monitored via high-tech anklets called Scrams, attend AA or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and go into rehab.

Community service is also expected. Police statistics tell us that more than 80 per cent of crime occurs when the offender is under the influence of alcohol or a drug, so the payback for a success in the court programme isn't just fewer prisoners, it's less crime and fewer victims. Each case was carefully evaluated, as were the "carrots and sticks" used to encourage compliance and discourage drifting off the path of recovery.

As the morning progressed, I formed a mental picture of the procession of undesirables and misfits I was to confront after lunch. I could not have been further from the truth.

Apart from the fact that, on the day I visited, all were men they could have been any random group of Kiwis. Each stated how many "clean" days they'd managed, ranging from a new entrant at 13 days sober to a veteran with nearly 18 months under his belt.

All had happier, worthier lives and they said so.

The court's objectives of reducing reoffending, reducing alcohol and other drug use and dependency, reducing the use of imprisonment and positively impacting on defendant's health and wellbeing are very clearly being achieved.

As for cost-effectiveness, that's easy. As all these offenders would otherwise be headed for prison, I multiplied their sober days by the cost of jail. I quickly got to more than $1 million in savings.

I saw only a small sample of the court's clients, and that's not even counting the wider cost benefits.

This is an experiment that deserves repetition.

• The Herald on Sunday will publish a range of views "out of leftfield" over the next month.

- Herald on Sunday

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