The Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court supports users who want to break their habit. It's a successful system, so why might it be shut down, asks Paul Little.

Mr J was found asleep at the wheel after crashing into a tree with a half-drunk bottle of whisky in his lap.

He is appearing before the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court, supported by a public defence lawyer straight out of one of those high-pressure TV legal dramas: he got the file the day before at 4pm and hasn't met his client yet.

He does know Mr J has seven driving charges to his name, including one for being five times over the limit and driving at more than 40km/h in a school zone around 3pm.
Judge Lisa Tremewan postpones any decision until lawyer and client have met.
Under her steady and focused direction, the whole team continue to work their way efficiently through 30-something case files before lunch.

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Mr P is 17 and has "a massive youth court history". His case will need to be adjourned but Tremewan does not look happy to learn that he is in a gang called HFC, which apparently stands for Who F****** Cares.

"Spelling," she notes, "is obviously one of the things they want to show they don't care about."

The court sits once a week in Courtroom Five of the Waitākere District Court in Henderson. Judge Emma Parsons is here today to learn the ropes. She is sitting alongside Judge Tremewan, the driving force behind the court — in conjunction with Judge Emma Aitken, who runs the sister AODTC at Auckland.

It's worth looking closely at the court's unwieldy name. "Alcohol" appropriately comes first because that is the substance that does most harm. "Other Drug" because they come into it too — but also to emphasise that alcohol is as much a drug as any illegal substance. "Treatment" because that's what people get here: treatment for their problem. And "Court" because it is a real court, with real charges and real sentences.

It also has a significant Māori name, given to it by long-time supporter Sir Pita Sharples: Te Whare Whakapiki Wairua, meaning the House that Uplifts the Spirit, not something you can accuse many courts of doing.

People who appear here are facing a jail term of fewer than three years for a crime that has come about as a result of their addiction, along with other strict entry criteria. Instead of going to jail, they agree to undertake a treatment programme which includes a lot of personal supervision and other rehab measures.

It's a court of two halves. Broadly, the morning is spent poring over all the information and deciding what to do with those in the programme. The afternoon is spent telling them what's going to happen.

Where the AODTC differs most obviously from other courts is that it does not work on an adversarial system. Police, lawyers, probation officers and the others are working together for a positive outcome. Everyone going through the court has already admitted their guilt anyway — it's one of the criteria for admission.

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Tremewan explains its makeup is based on best practice observed overseas: "We copied research that says a team should comprise an admin person, treatment people, who are often clinicians themselves, preferably with a lived experience of recovery. Then your police prosecutor. Your lawyer. In New Zealand, we've added a pou oranga." The phrase means healing pillar. In this case, that is kaumatua Rawiri Pene — Matua Ra, as he's known in court — who works at both Auckland and Henderson.

Of the 453 offenders who have been put through the programme, 40 per cent have graduated and 60 per cent of those have not reoffended.

Tremewan says that even where people do reoffend, overseas research shows the type of offending is less serious.

That compares with the 60 per cent of those who go through the traditional court process who reoffend within the same period.

"If I'm driving along the road, and there is someone coming the other way, would I prefer it to be someone who's just served their jail time, or would I prefer someone who's been actively working on their addiction issues?" asks Tremewan.

In other words, is the public better off when chronic drink drivers, for instance, have been punished with jail or when they have been successfully treated to break their addiction?
But after seven years of operation, this effective model is still seen as an experiment, with no guarantee it will continue beyond 2020. Why? The usual reasons: politics and money.

Graduation day

One person is graduating today, having successfully completed her treatment. Others, such as Mr J, are applying to join the programme. There are 50 places in all and today there are 16 applicants in the pipeline for the two positions available. The largest group in court is those who are checking in as part of their monitoring. They are divided into an A Team and a B Team and progress through various phases according to how well they are doing. Some will be hoping to move up a phase. Those who have reached their sobriety goals get tags to mark their achievement.

Kaumatua Rawiri Pene, the court's pou oranga (healing pillar) at the Alcohol and Drug Treatment Court at the Waitakere District Court in West Auckland.
Kaumatua Rawiri Pene, the court's pou oranga (healing pillar) at the Alcohol and Drug Treatment Court at the Waitakere District Court in West Auckland.

During the lunch break, the furniture is rearranged to a more traditional configuration and there is accommodation for the large number of people who will be here to support their whānau and friends. Courtroom theatricality is apparent not just in the stage management but in the direction. Tremewan arranges the order of cases for most effect: starting with successes so that those present who may not have done so well will be inspired to greater efforts.

She first calls Rosa's* case. For all its informality, this is still a formal court hearing. Rosa's graduation is actually the precursor to her sentencing. Tremewan outlines the background to her case — messed-up relationships, her child taken from her (now returned), other obstacles along the way. Her case worker and others who have worked with her pay tribute to her progress. Her mother is there to "thank everyone in this court, especially you, judge, because if you'd given her the flick I don't know where she'd be today". (Rosa's partner was so inspired by her transformation that he also put himself through treatment and now they are both living a clean life.)

Then comes the sentencing on 17 charges including driving offences, drug possession, breaches of various court orders. In another court, her crimes would have earned her a 20-month sentence, but today she is sentenced to 15 months' intensive supervision, monitored by the judge, which means regular meetings to check she is on the right track. She also gets an alcohol interlock order — a device in her car which will disable it if she uses alcohol. And she will give back by working in the treatment sector.

One of the court's four weighting factors for prioritising applications is Māori ethnicity — targeting tangata whenua in an effort to reduce their disproportionate representation in the stats - having dependents (such as children), public safety and family violence.
Rosa and her family's relief and joy appear to have the desired inspirational effect on everyone else in court. She's the court's 176th graduate.

The process is really a series of conversations between Judge Tremewan and those in the programme, with input from the rest of the team. She seems intimately familiar with all their situations and histories as they come up and able to engage with them in detail.
Finally, Mr J, his lawyer having met and discussed his case with him, gets to go to the next step in his application to go on the programme.

Tremewan treats him respectfully and kindly. "Thank you for your application to the court," she says.

"Tell me in your own words ... what you know about the court ... what it's about."

"It's about supporting people who have a problem with drugs and alcohol," he says.

Tremewan is clear about what is expected of him. "You have to be honest. You are only as sick as your secrets." She points out only 50 people get on the programme.

Perhaps fortunately for him, Mr J is the only one with an application before her today. She says she believes he wants to live a different life and can do the hard work required.
Mr J slowly starts to smile as the realisation he is going to get the chance to save his life and family sinks in. He is "invited" by the Judge to join the programme and given the AODTC contract to sign.

"This is our deal between you and me," she tells him before inviting Matua Ra to welcome him into the court.

When the court was set up, explains Tremewan, the money was found and our sentencing act — very sensibly — "allows a judge to give an opportunity for people to undergo treatment and get credit for that. It specifically allows a judge to adjourn a case for that to happen."

But to extend the AODTC more widely to other areas and to more than the current 100 people will require a political commitment to a lot more funding. There have been delays assessing data to confirm that it works. Tremewan doesn't sound very impressed.
"We're into the fourth round of evaluations," she says. "which have all been positive. The last evaluation looked at the first 42 graduates and said there had been a 15 per cent reduction in recidivism as against a match group. The interesting thing was the match group didn't have addictions."

Hopefully the current evaluation will compare addicts with addicts, look at the bigger picture and provide the numerical proof that's needed.

It's doubly frustrating for Tremewan because overseas results in some unlikely locations show that drug courts are successful.

"They've got them in every US state, including places like Texas," she says. "That's because these courts work — they get better outcomes, ultimately reduce costs and there are fewer victims."

But more people are listening. "In New Zealand, since methamphetamine raised its head and it doesn't care what school you went to, it's interesting how interested people are in alternative approaches."

There's no denying it's an expensive way of dealing with the problem.
"The minimum time in the court is 12 months, and the average is 18. When you think of what it takes for people who spend so long living their life a certain way to change direction, it takes time. And the model uses things that cost money, like paying for case managers to be on your team. Drug testing is the biggest cost but we also know that overseas the cost of testing came right down once you had economies of scale."

And there is a lot of testing, with people on the programme being checked five times a fortnight. "People say they are very expensive," says the judge. "To which I would say, the status quo costs a lot of money already."

Also, stopping drug-related crime offers invisible savings in terms of downstream social costs from dysfunctional families and generational criminal behaviour.

Tremewan and others want the current courts' futures assured and other courts established elsewhere. It is obvious that the judges await a decision from the government.
The Minister of Justice is a fan.

"I think they're excellent in the way they deal with people," says Andrew Little.

"They have to turn up every couple of weeks and account for themselves and that makes the difference.

As for the future, he makes encouraging noises: "One of the challenges the courts have is a lack of services and support for those needing treatment. This will hopefully be addressed when we announce what we will do after the inquiry into mental health and addiction.

"The budget will have some commitments following that, and I anticipate a bid in next year's budget for further rolling out the courts on the back of new treatment services."

Jim's story

Graduates of the court return regularly to touch base and encourage new participants. Jim, 62, was one of the first graduates.

I've had cannabis charges, and a procuring cocaine charge. I have had several assaults on police. I had four DICs from when I was about 28 through to about 40. I got three DICs while awaiting trial.

I was drinking all the time, starting in the morning. I'd regularly be outside the bottle shop before 9 o'clock when it opened, and I'd be peeking in at the bottles. Once I start drinking I won't stop until it's all gone.

I think I'd had enough of it because the first day of the drug court, the lawyer said: "You could end up in jail or you can try to get into this drug court." And I thought: "If you don't give it a go now, you never will."

The whole thing about the drug court is that they are actually trying to instil a change.

You're not facing a judge that's purely punitive. They're actually working, trying to work with you, depending on your own co-operation. It's like: you give respect, you will get respect. You treat somebody like an arsehole, nine times out of the 10, they're going to be an arsehole back.

The night before court when I knew they were going to put the SCRAM [alcohol monitoring device] on, I bought a box of beer. That's what my mindset was still like.
In court they said: "When was your last use?"

First of all I said: "Last weekend." And then my mind is like I'm probably going to be sprung and I'm being put on this programme of honesty, so I said: "It was last night." And the system of monitoring meant I couldn't ever use.

Three months after I started that I stopped at a pub to use the toilet and I was standing there and I realised: I don't have to go to the bar.

So something had worked. My mindset had changed, and the drug court was the catalyst.


* Name has been changed