New Zealand Law Society

Navigation menu

Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts transforming lives

30 November 2018 - By Nick Butcher

Society tends to offer little sympathy to drug addicts and alcoholics who commit crime to feed their addiction. After all, many end up on an endless cycle of prison lags only to use drugs inside where they learn new ways of committing crime through hardened career criminals.

But what if addiction was treated as a health issue and in cases where a person was assessed as suitable, that person could avoid another prison stint and instead go through supervised treatment over a period of 18-20 months to then return to the community clean and sober, with a support structure in place and a fighting chance of building a better life?

Since 2012 a pilot programme entitled the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts has been running at the Waitakere and Auckland District Courts.

The judges, lawyers, police prosecutors, probation officers, and other support workers are part of a team that takes a holistic approach in dealing with defendants.

LawTalk met some of the team, along with a graduate of the programme.

What is the AODTC?

The AODTC is the last chance saloon for many of the people who enter it. They’re lost, they’re broken and in many cases they’re unwanted because the hurt they’ve caused through their addiction has led to isolation.

Esma Brown, Matua Rawiri Pene and Rosie Abbott standing in court
From left: lawyer Esma Brown,
Pou Oranga Matua Rawiri Pene, lawyer Rose Abbott

The lawyers at Waitakere District Court are led by criminal barrister Bridie Murphy and include Rosie Abbott, Kathryn Penrose and Esma Brown.

The lawyers don’t determine the treatment pathway for their clients, but they do advocate their client’s position, dealing with issues such as bail hearings or dealing with charges they may be facing.

The therapeutic court is similar to a United States model. The courts have been extensively evaluated overseas and are based on evidence-based best practice.

It includes restorative justice where recovering addicts are able to make amends to their victims during the course of the programme.

Rosie Abbott had trained to be a prosecutor for the police in Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts and had attended a training conference.

She didn’t proceed with being part of the prosecution and about two years ago joined the defence team. She is Māori and like many people she was concerned about the dismal criminal justice statistics showing that over 50% of inmates are Māori.

The house that uplifts the spirit

The Māori name of AODTC is Te Whare Whakapiki Wairua, which was given to it by Sir Pita Sharples. It means ‘the house that uplifts the spirit’.

For Ms Abbott, the court is a unique opportunity to play a part in helping to change those heart-breaking statistics for Māori.

The court incorporates a lot of Māori values and traditions. It starts in the morning with a karakia followed by a waiata that is sung by everyone.

“Defendants, lawyers, judges, registrars, police, treatment providers. It is very different compared to a traditional court. This court blows those typical ideals out of the water. We end the day with a waiata too,” she says.

The court includes peer support workers who are allocated to individual defendants. They’re generally people who have been through the prison system, are clean and sober and have built new lives.

“It’s very motivating for new participants to see this as something they can do. ‘Look at my peer support worker. He or she was where I was in prison, not so long ago.’ They’re now free of active addiction, living a good life back with their family and have a job and purpose,” says lawyer Kathryn Penrose.

“It’s all very well for a lawyer or judge to talk to a person about what they need to do to change their life but when you have a living and breathing example that shows the programme works, it’s highly motivating.”

Lacking the adversarial tone of other courts

During the morning sessions Judge Lisa Tremewan refers to everyone working in the court as ‘team’ when she asks how individual people are doing.

Judge Tremewan says all participants give informed consent to partaking in the inquisitorial approach taken by the court as they know that this gives them the best chance to succeed at something they have not been able to achieve themselves.

The adversarial lawyer goes out the window, says barrister Bridie Murphy.

“How it works is that a defendant will apply for a position on the AODTC. Their lawyers will make submissions to the court as to why that person should be accepted. It’s very thorough, covering all aspects of the person’s life, recommending as to whether the person would be suitable. We then discuss the application as a team,” she says.

“If we want our clients to be open and honest, then we have to be the same."

“Sometimes a potential candidate may have been a previous client of one of us. Another interesting situation is the lawyer-client privilege relationship. In this court forum, we are obliged to be open, upfront and transparent with regard to what’s going on with our clients because that’s what the collaborative approach requires,” Rosie Abbott says.

It sounds reasonable enough but it should be remembered that the people they’re dealing with have backgrounds of well-rehearsed dishonesty. It is this behaviour that has enabled them to commit crimes including breaking and entering, stealing cars and inflicting violence on others to feed their addictions.

So how difficult is it for a person with little concept of honesty to practise it?

“It’s probably easier for people to stay within the prison system environment than it is to be in the drug court, because that’s what they’re used to. Everything they learned in how to survive in prison is completely the opposite of how we want them to act in this court. The number one concept we push is to be HOT, that is honest, open and transparent,” Kathryn Penrose says.

She says the lawyers understand how hard it is for many of them not to take drugs or drink alcohol. The participants have to wear SCRAM (secure continuous remote alcohol monitoring) bracelets and have to submit regular urine tests for drug screening. Positive tests result in a person going from the A-team as Judge Tremewan calls it, to the B-team, meaning their road to freedom just got longer.

“We’re dealing with people from the high end of addiction. Without testing it would just be a farce. It’s not enough in this situation for people to say they’re not drinking or taking drugs. A peer support worker described it as habilitating people, because through this work they’re being returned to society as people who can function in a normal world,” says Rosie Abbott.

To get a good understanding of the sort of clients they’d be dealing with, these lawyers had to undergo training, including attending the Cutting Edge addictions conference.

Understanding the addicts

Kathryn Penrose has been part of the pilot since it began and says being able to help her clients meant understanding them first.

“I’d typically meet a client at court and I could see the person had alcohol and drug addiction issues. But I didn’t really understand how they struggled with the concept of going into a treatment programme. I didn’t have that lived experience so I visited a range of treatment providers in Auckland with a probation officer. I also attended 12-step alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous meetings. In addition I did a lot of reading about addiction,” she says.

The lawyers say their work has opened their eyes to potential in people who have been severely damaged by drug addiction.

Boarding a waka

Rosie Abbott describes the scene when participants first come into the court as boarding a waka and the court rowing with them.

“There comes a point though when they take the paddle up and we start to let go of the paddle as they progress in their recovery. Many participants are very reluctant to come in. Some of them enter just to get bail and run away so you can never tell who will be a success,” she says.

There is no quick fix and sometimes participants relapse several times before finally grasping a life without hard drugs and alcohol. However, there are many others who transition quicker.

“It’s challenging for us when they pick up and use drugs again especially after having long stretches of clean time. But then that’s the nature of addiction,” says lawyer Esma Brown.

“Re-offending when they are supposedly doing well is also hard to deal with. But being in this court is about breaking that behaviour, and coping with triggers. I guess the biggest challenge for me is when they can’t see the potential in themselves, when they are struggling and lose hope. However, we have a saying that ’we hold the hope for you until you can’.”

Ms Brown has been with the pilot since it started in 2012. She says there are many success stories that make their work worthwhile.

“I had one client who, while in custody, had lost her children, the trust of her parents and family and she was looking at a lengthy prison sentence. Her life had spiralled out of control and the revolving door that brought her continually before the court had remained open for many years. She’d lost all hope.

“But, through her journey she was able to put her life back together. She graduated and in time her children were returned to her, and she was able to make peace with her father before he passed away. She still contacts me from time to time and she’s now studying in the field of social work.”

The lawyers say their work is not about making money. It’s about passion and compassion and making a contribution to society. Ms Penrose used to be a commercial lawyer and could earn so much more doing that work.

A graduate reflects on then and now

Sarah (not her real name) is a graduate – as it’s described – of the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts. She is 32 years old. Her last run-in with the police was in December 2016 after about five years of criminal offending to support her drug habit of injecting one gram of meth a day into her veins combined with another drug called fantasy, which is otherwise known as gamma-hydroxybutyric acid.

“I was a public nuisance. I burgled homes, stole cars, and committed fraud. I have 42 convictions. I never thought I had a problem with drugs. I thought everyone else was the problem. I ended up at Wiri Prison in South Auckland and for the first time I took a long and hard look at myself. It took me two months just to put a sentence together I was so damaged by drug use,” she says.

When reality set in, Sarah knew she faced a dismal future in prison. She was offered drugs many times but refused them. She was desperately clinging to the hope of a new beginning but had no idea how that might look.

“I knew this but was still trying to manipulate my way out of this situation,” she says.

It was in prison that she met someone who was in as much trouble as her, who told Sarah that she was going through what she referred to as the drug court and had been granted bail to do so.

Sarah queried her lawyer about this court.

“He said ‘I’ve been trying to tell you about this for years’. I just wasn’t listening,” she says.

During her bail hearing court appearance, her lawyer told the judge that her offending was fuelled by drug use and from there she was referred to the AODTC.

Drug court not the softer option

“If I’d not been bailed to participate within the AODTC, I would have just done the same all over again. The drug court was so hard. It was like being a child again and in this case I had all kinds of parents telling me what to do,” Sarah says.

Some days she felt as if her only motivation was to avoid going back to jail and other times she felt like jail might be a better option.

“I was existing in an environment where I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do. There were rules and consequences and, other than jail, I’d never experienced consequences as a result of my behaviour.

“I was a tiny person in a huge world, sober,” she says.

She couldn’t hold down a job during this rehabilitation period which included entering a rehab facility and submitting to regular random drug and alcohol tests, attending meetings at Narcotics Anonymous, and making amends or restitution to people affected by her previous lifestyle.

But she got there, and “graduated” which was a very significant milestone in her ongoing recovery journey.

Sarah intends to return to study with a particular focus on addiction services.

The court’s six-year birthday

During LawTalk’s visit to the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts, the court celebrated six years in service with a traditional birthday cake. It’s been closer to 10 though, as it took several years to get the pilot up and running.

While Judge Tremewan and her team of lawyers, the police prosecutor, Pou Oranga tikanga cultural adviser, Matua Rawiri Pene, peer support and other social or rehab workers were proud of their work to date, there was also a sense of frustration in the air.

What more did they have to do to prove the value of this court?

Questions such as whether this court model has a future still need to be answered. There has been an indication and desire from Justice Minister Andrew Little to roll this court model out around New Zealand, but nothing is certain yet.

The Chief District Court Judge, Jan-Marie Doogue, says the pilot scheme has been a success.

“The two judges leading the AODT court, Lisa Tremewan and Ema Aitken, have been extraordinarily dedicated to taking a solutions-focused approach to delivering justice. Their work continues to impress and inspire their judicial colleagues.”

“While the resourcing of any future expansion of the AODT court is a decision for others, there are valuable lessons to be drawn from the approach it takes for the rest of the District Court,” she says.

“Depending on the outcome of the independent evaluation, the guidance it may provide and the response from government, I look forward to the District Court eventually having the capacity to apply those lessons in a comprehensive integrated way, especially in terms of building processes which better include communities in addressing the underlying drivers of an individual’s offending.”

During my visit, the 171st graduate of the court programme was celebrated. Jack (not his real name) was another person who would otherwise have been rotting in prison. He had been sober 20 months and was planning to work as a delivery driver. Previously he was a gang member. He was sentenced to 20 months supervision and assessed as at a low risk of reoffending as long as he continues to stay involved in recovery programmes outside the court.

“Some days when I’m not feeling that great, being a graduate of the pilot programme is what keeps me going. I want to be a statistic that helps other people. I cannot go back to my old life,” Sarah says.

From 24-25 January 2019 the Aotearoa AODTC Conference 2019 is being held in Auckland. It will discuss whether the current model fulfils its therapeutic and restorative potential and how it might be further shaped going forward.

Last updated on the 30th November 2018