I had the chance recently to attend the Waitakere Alcohol and Drug Treatment Court – one of the few therapeutic courts in New Zealand. The waiata we sang – Te Whare Whakapiki Wairua Waita – describes the court as ‘The House that Lifts the Spirits.’
To qualify, offenders must plead guilty to their charges, then agree to undergo strict supervision, intensive treatment, 24-hour monitoring and take random drug and alcohol tests. Some are also allocated special bracelets that are able to detect if they’ve been drinking
I’ve had the chance to watch a few court appearances before, but this was a different breed of courtroom altogether. Contrary to what Law and Order might tell you, courtrooms are normally tense places where formality rules and emotion is frowned upon. The energy at AODTC is incredibly warm and supportive. Judges, forensic nurses, police constables and hardened criminals sit side by side at the same table.
First to the stand was Ross*, a man in his late 50’s. Judge Tremewan noted his recent birthday, and asked how it was. Ross says it was the first time he’s been sober on his birthday in 30 years. He tells her that what he’s really looking forward to is his “sober birthday,” which will celebrate a year of being clean
Restorative justice for drug users is a topic that has floated between various political parties in recent years, and is likely to rise into public awareness in 2020 when the Labour Party has vowed to hold a binding referendum over cannabis law reform. The AODTC was established in a five-year pilot in 2012 with the aim to reduce recidivism by empowering individuals to break the cycle of addiction and crime. In June 2017, the National Government extended the pilot for three more years. A recent conference lauded the success of the courts so far in terms of graduate numbers and reduced re-offending rates, and many hope that Alcohol and Drug treatment courts will be opened all over New Zealand. Proponents of the court are confident that AODTC is one of the best therapeutic courts in the world, as we have the benefit of seeing what has worked for countries like the United States who have more established therapeutic courts.
One by one, participants walk up to the stand and talk about their progress since the last sitting. There is an ‘A team’ and a ‘B team’ – ‘A team’ members are those who are doing well, while those who have had minor slip ups in the programme – not showing up to an appointment, not complying with treatment orders – are on the B team. The teams don’t make a practical difference, but it helps attendees stay accountable for their actions and recognise their achievements.
The next speaker is Josh,* a young man celebrating his first year of sobriety. His speech is deeply personal, going through the trauma and emotions which led him to use in the first place. He encourages new participants to fight through the initial struggle of sobriety and to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Graduates of the programme often come back as support people to help guide others through the ups and downs of the programme. At least three graduates sat in the courtroom that day simply to observe and support.
A friend of Josh’s then gets up and tells the court how he has seen a massive change in him. “He’s like a new man.”
Less than half an hour in, and I was already struggling to hold back tears. I wasn’t alone – several participants could be seen on the edge of crying in the public gallery. There was a deep sense of being part of something significant in another person’s life. For many, entry into the AODTC is the turning point away from a lifelong involvement in criminal activity. Graduates have so much to gain from participating – they may re-connect family ties, have their children returned from protective services, gain stable employment, or pursue higher education.
The Judge presents Josh with a medal to celebrate the achievement and praises him for his authenticity. Authenticity and honesty seem to be highly valued here, even when it means admitting one’s failures. There is some risk that participants will use the programme as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, completing the programme to avoid a prison sentence rather than to genuinely better themselves. However, Judge Tremewan seems to have a keen eye for identifying those who genuinely want to be there.
I also have the chance to see an ‘exit hearing.’ Because only 100 people can be in the programme at any one time, those who show a lack of determination to complete the programme are sometimes exited to make space for those who need it most. It’s an unfortunate occasion, but the Judge remains positive; “evidence shows that even people who don’t graduate from this programme still have reduced rates of recidivism and substance abuse,” she says. “It’s just not your time yet.”
The basic idea behind AODTC is that in order to reduce drug-related harm in New Zealand, the law should take a health-focused approach rather than a punitive one. Evidence suggests that prison sentences do little to reduce drug use and put the offender in increasingly stressful positions which can lead to an inescapable ‘wheel of offending.’ It’s no secret that drug use is rampant inside prisons, despite the constant surveillance. Emerging research in neuroscience suggests that drug addiction can be thought of as a chronic disease of the brain – one which cannot be cured without treatment. If the goal of drug laws is to reduce drug use in the community, locking drug users up together without treatment is surely counter-intuitive. Fingers crossed that we start to see a trend in evidence-based therapeutic courtrooms throughout the country.