By PHILIP ENGLISH and CLAIRE TREVETT
The public profile of former TV3 newsreader Darren McDonald may save him from jail after a judge agreed his fame would make him a target for drug dealers in prison.
McDonald smiled as he walked on bail from the High Court at Auckland today after being allowed to apply to serve his sentence at home.
Justice Marion Frater sentenced him to eight months in prison on drugs charges but gave him leave to apply for home detention.
She said his sentence should be deferred given his high profile and "the acknowledged availability" of drugs in prison.
The ruling sparked debate among lawyers, with criminologist Greg Newbold labelling the reasoning "hogwash".
McDonald, 36 and unemployed, pleaded guilty to one charge of offering to supply Ecstasy, carrying a maximum penalty of 14 years' jail, and one charge of conspiring to supply methamphetamine, carrying a maximum of 10 years.
He had offered to supply nine Ecstasy tablets to a co-offender.
Justice Frater said McDonald had lost his promising career, lost the respect of colleagues and friends and had brought shame to his family in Australia.
High-profile, intelligent and successful people like McDonald gave the impression drug use was okay, she said. "It is not. Many lives are adversely affected by these drugs, and you know that only too well."
Crown prosecutor David McNaughton said the offending was "absolutely at the bottom end of the scale" because there was no evidence McDonald profited from the sale of drugs to workmates or associates.
Defence lawyer Marie Dyhrberg, said McDonald's case showed what "addiction does".
He had been on his way to having it all, but spun out of control until the wake-up call of his arrest.
Ms Dyhrberg said McDonald needed to continue his rehabilitation and would be singled out in prison.
"Sadly, drugs are available in prison ... It is not as if he can quietly hide away."
Mr McNaughton said McDonald would be a celebrity prisoner.
"The submission that there are drugs in prison is one that I will not argue with ... It is quite likely he will be the subject of special attention."
Outside the court, McDonald said: "My mother's been having kittens over there [Australia], there are several litters. And do I have regrets? A great many."
Criticising the sentence, Dr Newbold, himself a former inmate, said McDonald was more likely to be tempted by drugs outside prison than inside. "There's more drugs out here than in prison.
"I've got no arguments with the decision, but the rationale given is rubbish. I think they just probably think he's a nice guy and didn't want to put him in jail. "
He said McDonald was no more likely to be targeted by drug sellers in prison than any other prisoner.
"He possibly would have been bashed because he was a celebrity. But it's equally likely they would have treated him well because he has a high profile. Nobody who goes to prison knows whether they will be bashed up or taken in as a friend."
However, a spokesman for the Howard League for Penal Reform, Peter Williams, QC, said McDonald would have been sought out by prison drug peddlers.
"The perception would be that he would have the money to buy them. Jeffrey Archer said in his book that he was plied with offers of drugs in prison, because he was a man of money."
Regardless of the availability of drugs in the outside world, prison was an "unnatural" place, which could engender a stronger temptation to resort to drugs.
"I am very anti-drugs, but you can't blame prisoners for trying to get hold of drugs in prison."
The Department of Corrections has been fighting drugs using visitor searches, vehicle checkpoints and regular searches of cells and prison buildings. Fencing has been upgraded, including putting fences over exercise yards to stop outsiders throwing packages in.
In the 1998-99 year, 26 per cent of inmates tested positive in random drug testing. In 2001-2 it had dropped to 21 per cent.
Auckland District Law Society spokesman Gary Gotlieb said McDonald had been treated with "considerable leniency and compassion".
"But that is what a court can do and in this case that may have been justified."
But Mr Gotlieb did not believe drugs were as available in jail as many believed.
He said McDonald's high profile could have made prison a dangerous place. "I'm sure the shame of it will, without a doubt, affect him more than others for whom prison is a second home."
By PHILIP ENGLISH and CLAIRE TREVETT