Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court marks two years of a new approach

Their Honours Judges Lisa Tremewan and Ema Aitken reflect on achievements to date and what is ahead for the AODT Court.

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The adult Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment (AODT) Court, Te Whare Whakapiki Wairua, which sits at the Auckland and Waitakere District Courts, marked its two-year anniversary in early November this year.

In honour of the occasion, pioneering international Drug Court expert, Judge Peggy Hora, visited from her San Francisco base, and was also on hand to run some additional team training. Judges Lisa Tremewan and Ema Aitken, who have overseen the establishment of the AODT Court, regard such ongoing training opportunities as vital. The Court is founded on evidence-based best practice, but with that research then being applied to the unique New Zealand context.

Another regular training day was also held in late September, with the venue provided by ADLS, as pictured above.

The AODT Court is currently operating under a five year, fully evaluated pilot. Each of the Courts is currently restricted to a cap of fifty participants. Currently, the Courts are close to being “full” with around 90 participants across the two Courts. However, with graduations from the 12-18 month programme now occurring regularly (as well as other exits taking place where some participants are unable to comply with the Court's strict obligations), there are still places available for incoming applicants who meet the prescribed eligibility criteria. One of the entry criteria requires the participant (who will receive a community-based sentence on graduation) to have otherwise been looking at a term of imprisonment for up to three years. All current active charges must have guilty pleas entered to gain entry; the Court only takes cases which are post-plea but pre-sentence.

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When describing the work of the AODT Court, the Judges emphasise that the New Zealand Courts follow the internationally accepted, highly authoritative research of Dr Doug Marlowe. This research identifies these types of courts as being best suited to what might be deemed the toughest group – those not only with “high needs” (in terms of their alcohol or other drug dependency) but who are also at “high risk” of non-compliance.

“In other words,” says Judge Tremewan, “these are the ones for whom the system has effectively tried everything before, but they continue to be in a revolving door within the criminal justice system. It is therefore important when considering the work of these Courts, that one bears in mind that we are dealing with what might be termed the ‘hard basket’. The benefits of dealing better with this challenging cohort are however, obvious, both for the community and for the participants who have a chance to wholly change the direction of their lives.”

Judge Aitken notes that the results at this early stage are already looking very promising: “In the 12 months before the participants came into the AODT Court, they had been known to commit more than 900 offences between them; however in the 12 months after they entered the Court these participants had collectively committed only nine offences. While this is still nine offences too many, it is a significant reduction in the rate of offending and especially significant given the high risk/high needs group with which this Court is dealing,” says Her Honour.

Judge Aitken also describes the range of services provided to the participants: “We have not only been providing treatment options for alcohol and other drug issues, but a number of other programmes are offered, such as anger management, driver safety programmes, and a highly effective Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (called MRT) proven to be well suited to these defendants in making changes to their ‘criminal thinking’. Feedback from the participants themselves has also been positive; they appreciate being assisted to make these changes.”

The Judges stress that the Court is not an easy option. Applicants must realise that, if accepted, their participation in the Court would be akin to a “full-time job” for 12 to 18 months (or more), as they pursue a life in recovery. Their progress is scrutinised by the AODT Court team, which works in a non-adversarial way, and while progress and compliance are acknowledged along the way, sanctions are also applied in response to breaches, using a “carrot and stick” approach.

Lawyers should be aware that those with mental health or physical health concerns (other than those which are already inherent with alcohol or other drug dependency) may likely be unsuitable for entry and care is needed not to raise unrealistic expectations. “In some cases we have received applications from defendants who would be obviously better suited to a mental health court – which this Court is not. We cannot be all things to all people, and if we are to demonstrate that the AODT pilot court is successful, then we must be very mindful of the entry criteria,” remarks Judge Tremewan.

So far, there have been more than twenty graduations across the two Courts. After graduation, graduates are also invited with their whanau to a ceremony held twice yearly “He Takitini” (which refers to the many who stand together), where they are presented with a pounamu taonga representing their place in the group of graduates from the Court as well as their ongoing commitment to their recovery. The first such ceremony was held at Orakei marae and was attended by more than 200 people including various dignitaries, officials and also the current participants from the AODT Court.

While the participants have come from many varied backgrounds, the largest group represented are Māori. The Judges are not surprised by this. Judge Tremewan states, “We know about the unacceptable overrepresentation of Māori in our national criminal justice statistics, however we have a significant opportunity in this court to establish different processes dealing better with root causes in a meaningful way, resulting in better outcomes for Māori, as well as all other participants.” The appointment of Rawiri Pene, as the Pou Oranga (Māori cultural advisor) across both Courts has been seen as pivotal in adopting a more effective approach to working with Māori. Greater awhi/ support is also offered through Kaitoko Whanau, restorative justice and other iwi-run services.

To graduate, participants are expected to be self-supporting through work (or be studying) and to have completed a significant number of hours of voluntary work hours during their time in the Court. For a number of them so far, their exemplary efforts at community work have in fact led to full-time work. Many hundreds of hours of community work have so far been done by participants in the AODT Court.

The Court has a number of other positive developments in the pipeline. The appointment of a new housing officer has recently been made which should make a difference to supporting participants who need safe and sober accommodation. Another area where the Judges would like to see more support provided is with pharmacological treatment, for example, a brief intervention using “naltrexone”, which can reduce cravings and suppress the brain's reward system (if there has been use), providing a disincentive to use. Research indicates that such support in combination with treatment and a good alcohol- and other drug-testing regime is extremely effective.

Two years in, the Judges have noticed that, while some lawyers are proactive about referring suitable cases to the Court, this is not what occurs across the board. It is also imperative that duty lawyers are alert to cases which may be suitable (as a number of duty lawyers already are), so that defendants are advised of the AODT Court as a possible option in a suitable case, which they may seek to raise with their own counsel when assigned. AODT Court handbooks are freely available for defendants to read. Time is of the essence as the research indicates that entry into the Court within 50 days of offending or arrest enhances the likelihood of a positive outcome. The Judges find it frustrating, when occasionally sitting in the normal District Court sentencing court, to see cases which appear well-suited to the AODT Court, but were not referred, and are long past the 50 day “advisory rule”.

Another area where the Judges sometimes see problems is in relation to applicants who do not have a residential address within the catchment areas of Auckland/Waitakere (including for those in custody). “This is important,” explains Judge Aitken, “for two reasons. Firstly, all of the Court’s services are located within the two court catchment areas. This has significant practical implications in terms of participants attending treatment, testing and all other rehabilitative programmes. Secondly, because the purpose of the Court’s programme is to graduate participants who are well supported in their recovery, this means building strong and enduring relationships with pro-social whanau members, employers and the wider recovery community. In other words, strong support in and around their daily lives and that support will be lost if they move away once the programme is completed.”

A major change to soon be effected in the Auckland AODT Court is the temporary departure of Judge Aitken, on secondment to the Supreme Court of Samoa for one year. This follows on from her presentation on the AODT Court to the Samoan judiciary and interested parties in April this year. While she will sit as a Justice of the Supreme Court, she will also provide advice, assistance and support to the judiciary with the establishment of an AODT Court in the District Court of Samoa. Both Judges Aitken and Tremewan are pleased that their experiences here in New Zealand have enabled them to make what is hoped will be a meaningful contribution to this exciting Pacific initiative.

Judge Aitken will start work in Samoa in February 2015 and, while she is there, Judge Tremewan will take over her responsibilities in the Auckland AODT Court. However, Judge Philippa Cunningham will also be sitting in that Court regularly and Judge Tony FitzGerald will also be sitting regularly in the Waitakere AODT Court to assist Judge Tremewan with her responsibilities there. This is important in terms of capacity-building, say the Judges, “especially if in time we are able to see the AODT Court model extended”. Judge Aitken meanwhile will remain in close contact with the pilot from Samoa, and continue to contribute to its ongoing development. 

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