Spending a few months in a courtroom, it doesn't take long to see a recurring string of names and a familiar assortment of charges.

Driving with excess breath alcohol, shoplifting, possession of drugs, family violence, burglary. It's disheartening to watch the perpetual cycle of offending with minimal gain but growing consequences.

Eventually judges have no option but a sentence of imprisonment. Or do they?

There is a very special court in Auckland - the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court ("AODTC"). Established in 2012, as a pilot scheme, two AODTC's have been running in Auckland for the last seven years.


These courts are tailored for offenders who are "high need" (serious alcohol and drug issues) and "high risk"(have failed to comply with community based sentences in the past) and who are facing a sentence of imprisonment of three years or less.

It won't be an easy ride for these athletes of the criminal justice treadmill – but it could end in freedom.

It is a well-established fact that prison isn't going to stop most offenders from coming back. 57 per cent of prisoners reoffend within two years of release. Why?

Read more:
Jay Kuten: Election for the future of Whanganui
New Zealand Herald Premium is here: How to subscribe, activate your account
Riding for the Disabled fundraises through hobby horse races

Because they cannot break the cycle of alcohol and drugs that fuels their offending. 87 per cent of our prisoners have alcohol and drug issues.

International experts agree that substance use disorder ("addiction") is a mental illness.

A strong predictor of substance use disorder is trauma. Offenders are more often than not victims themselves.

Unlike punitive sentencing which is modelled on populism, the AODTC is modelled on evidence.


Punishing people for crimes driven by mental health issues puts a band-aid on the issue.

They are released with more issues, fewer prospects and a whole lot of promises that they don't have the skills to keep. In the words of Judge Tremewan "you can't punish away addiction".

The AODTC deals with the alcohol and drugs and then equips offenders with the pro-social strategies they need to live in the world and gain employment.

The AODTC works by deferring sentence for the offender to complete treatment. An admission of guilt is a prerequisite for entry.

The offender is subject to random drug tests around five times per fortnight and regularly monitored in court for up to two years.

Walking alongside the offender is a Pou Oranga, a person who has experience of addiction and recovery. They provide living proof that there is a way out. Mentors and treatment services provide wrap around support.

Julia Fyers from Treadwell Gordon Photo / Supplied
Julia Fyers from Treadwell Gordon Photo / Supplied

As offenders progress through the system, they are assisted in finding employment or commencing study. Milestones are celebrated.

In February 2019, 453 offenders had been through the court, 40 per cent had graduated and 60 per cent of those have not re-offended. Those that don't make it are returned to the mainstream court for sentencing.

The AODTC is an example of criminal justice that conforms with international human rights obligations.

Offenders are held accountable for the crimes they have committed while being shown love and guidance.

At present, there is only funding for two AODTC courts in Auckland. Technically, any region can have an AODTC, but there is no funding. The US has 3000 drug courts. We need to follow suit.

Prison isolates people from the community. It is a common saying that the opposite of addiction is connection.


AODTC immerses offenders in the community, empowering them with a sense of purpose. It gives people the tools to leave a life of crime behind.

Small regions like Whanganui need these courts the most. Section 25 of the Sentencing Act allows a judge to adjourn sentencing until after treatment.

But in Whanganui, we have no residential treatment centres. The closest is in Wellington and it can take months to get a bed.

Whanganui would benefit hugely from an AODTC court and a residential treatment centre. We just don't have the resources.

There has been an indication from Justice Minister Andrew Little to roll AODTC out around the country. But I'm not holding my breath.