AODT Court models “transformational justice”

In June this year, Minister of Justice the Hon Amy Adams announced a three-year extension to the pilot of the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court (AODT Court or the Court) in the Auckland and Waitakere Courts. The extension will see the total length of the pilot spanning eight years.

AODT Court

In announcing the decision, Ms Adams described the early signs of the pilot as being “incredibly promising”, including prison beds being saved and reduced reoffending.

The Minister went on to note that more time was needed to evaluate larger numbers of Court participants before longer-term decisions would be made – hence the extension of the pilot, rather than a decision that would have made these two Courts permanent and paved the way for other Courts to start up in areas of need around the country.

There was confusion in some reports about the extended funding around graduate numbers because the preliminary study of reoffending used a treatment group from earlier in the pilot when graduate numbers were very low. In fact, by August this year, 119 people had graduated from the Court after meeting all their intensively monitored targets and milestones in a demanding process that can take two years.

Jacquelyn Shannon, Ministry of Justice Group Manager Courts and Tribunals, who also chairs the AODT Court steering group, says that by 2019, the Government will be able to make decisions on the basis of far better information. “We will have a far better understanding of the AODT Court’s effect on the likelihood of reoffending, based on a larger treatment group over a longer period of time, including a better idea of whether graduates continue to reoffend at a lower rate once they are more independent of the AODT Court.”

ADLS has been a long-time supporter of the AODT Court and ADLS President Joanna Pidgeon had the opportunity in July this year to attend the Court and observe its work. She was particularly impressed with the Court’s collaborative, personal approach and the stories of those graduating impacted her greatly.

“It was fascinating to see first-hand how all the team members worked together to assist the participants with staying on track and graduating through the Court process. It is a very personalised process, and every participant is held to account and encouraged,” Ms Pidgeon said.

“It was very moving to witness the graduation of a participant, who had had a long revolving door history with the criminal justice system, turn his life around with the support of the AODT Court team and friends and whanau. With the ongoing success of this pilot, it would be great to see the pilot extended to other areas in the country.”

The judges responsible for the Courts, their Honours Judge Lisa Tremewan and Judge Ema Aitken, remained optimistic about the Court’s longterm future when LawNews spoke with them.

Judge Tremewan says, “There is a reason why these kinds of Courts now number in their thousands in the US (including in places like Texas, where they have closed some prisons in favour of building Drug Treatment Courts), and why Australia has recently made enormous investments in establishing more Drug Courts – and it’s simply because these Courts work.”

“For us, it has been very satisfying to be involved in ground-breaking, collaboratively-driven work, using an evidence-based model of transformational justice for a fairly intractable group of offenders in the criminal justice system.”

Judge Aitken comments in a similar vein: “Working in these Courts, we see the daily improvement of the lives of not just those in the Court, but their families and wider communities. Offenders who have spent years in prison are able, with the right treatment and support, to turn those lives around, and are grateful for the opportunity these Courts provide.”

A very moving short video which the Court recently made (with funding assistance from ADLS) is testament to the impact the Court has had on the lives of those who have passed through it, with a group of graduates speaking candidly about their past struggles and their experiences in the Court. The video, which has received widespread positive feedback, provides both an insight into graduates’ personal transformations as well as undeniable evidence of the “new direction” that the Court offers these seemingly unreachable people.

The graduates paint a vivid picture of the hopelessness of lives lived trapped in a cycle of addiction and crime. “I never saw a way out of that lifestyle, I thought that was the end for me – to die taking drugs and committing crime,” says one. “I knew if I had gone to prison and come back I would have been the same and I wouldn’t have changed,” shares another.

Candidly, one man admits that he only said yes to the programme so he could get back out of prison and continue using, without realising the momentous nature of the decision he had just made. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But I’m just glad, I’m just so glad that I have been through this journey. The first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t alone … there’s just a whole spirit thing about the Court.”

Others agree that the Court’s unique model, support team and atmosphere gave them “the tools to be able to deal with life”. “Everyone cared … and so I started to open up and the walls and barriers started to go down. Who would have thought that a court would be wonderful but it was,” says one woman. “With everybody in that courtroom, you could feel … that they personally cared about my wellbeing. They didn’t give up on me, and for that I am grateful,” agrees another man.

One of the most powerful testimonies on the video comes from “Mark” who, after two decades spent in and out of the criminal system (and over 200 convictions to his name), is now scarcely recognisable as the person he used to be. Not only has Mark successfully graduated from the AODT Court, he is now employed as a peer support worker in the Court itself, helping others along the same path he trod.

“Jail was my second home, and I just lived my life like that in a cycle,” he says. “But when I went in front of this court, a judge told me that she had faith in me, that I could do this. That was the starting point for me.”

He says that the relationship of accountability that he developed with his AODT Court judge made him realise that “if we came to an agreement, I had to stick to it”. “The person that [I] was without drugs started to show himself, and started to shine … Whatever you’ve done in the past, people can change, I’m a living, breathing example.”

Judge Aitken emphasises that the functioning of the Court depends on teamwork and collective buy-in. “Key to the success of these Courts is access to appropriate alcohol and other drug treatment, trauma counselling and other rehabilitative programmes, all delivered in a cohesive, joined-up way,” her Honour says. “Collaboration between stakeholders is vital – and one of the most rewarding aspects of the pilot to date has been the building of this collaborative community.”

However, she considers that further investment in the treatment sector is vital. “For example, there has been no increase in residential treatment beds in Auckland for at least ten years, despite the pervasive abuse of methamphetamine over this time,” she notes. “Investment in community-based programmes is also essential – and provides a cheaper option – coupled with access to transitional accommodation, so that those who want to break the cycle of addiction and offending have safe and sober accommodation while they do so.”

After her experience visiting the Court, Joanna Pidgeon observed, “One of the challenges facing the therapeutic court is the need to get participants out of custody into suitable, sober and safe accommodation at the earliest opportunity. For those who must remain in custody awaiting a treatment bed, it would be of great assistance if they could be located in one area or wing within the prison system where they can commence their treatment plans.”

The judges’ comments are timely in the light of recent drug-related stories in the wider news media. And the success stories from the Court’s many graduates provide ample examples that initiatives which actually work, like the AODT Court, should be applauded and supported.

“The alarming evidence of deaths from synthetic cannabis use are a reminder that drug abuse is a serious problem that we as a community need to respond to as a matter of some urgency and Drug Courts are a crucial part of that response,” urges Judge Aitken.

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