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A court that heals

1 Nov 2014
Keri Welham
This article was published 10 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

New Zealand’s drug court pilot celebrates two years of operation in November. Each of its 18 graduates came from the ‘hard basket’ – typically repeat offenders with a long history of victims, convictions and prison time. They have substance issues and are facing a court that prioritises recovery over punishment. Keri Welham visits the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court with photographer Stephen Piper.

Steve* is a career burglar. He bowls into the dock of an Auckland courtroom wearing an oversized white t-shirt – and an oversized grin. His eyes immediately search the rows of the public gallery.

There they are.

His partner has travelled up from Rotorua, and she’s cradling their two-weekold baby. Steve has been in custody more than four months – this is the first time he has ever laid eyes on the newborn.

All he can see is a well-wrapped bundle. From the dock, Steve twirls his hand, gesturing “turn baby around”. But baby is sleeping, and the young mother’s gaze falls on the bench.

Steve is today entering the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment (AODT) Court.

Judge Ema Aitken presides over this Auckland AODT Court, and Judge Lisa Tremewan presides over the sister court in Waitakere. These two courts, each sitting once a week and each catering for a maximum of 50 offenders, deliver justice through a model of therapeutic interventions. The court’s objective is to help offenders deal with their addiction and criminal behaviour. Along the way, the multi-agency AODT team also works to help participants repair stressful social and emotional situations, such as homelessness and shattered relationships with whānau.

The court cloaks each participant in support; a korowai woven from the various government departments, treatment providers and community organisations, which collaborate to offer participants a decent shot at crime-free recovery.

On any given day, there are people applying to join the court or continuing to wait in custody for a bed to become available. There are people – like Steve – who are accepted and welcomed into the programme. There are also people checking in for their regular remand appearance who report they have stumbled on their recovery journey and others who have enjoyed successes they never thought possible. And there are people like 32-year-old Kuini Witehira – the programme’s 18th graduate – who stand before the court to finally face their sentence and cautiously, with support and knowledge behind them, start a new chapter in their lives.

Steve has signed the 26-point contract with the court. It stipulates expectations the most significant of which are total abstinence and crime-free living.

Participation in the court is voluntary, but offenders appear to be motivated by the opportunity for supported change, preferential access to the in-demand resources of the treatment community and the knowledge that, if they go the distance, they will avoid jail. Near the end of the contract, in plain language, is point 20: Judge Aitken identifies that Steve is distracted. After seeking assurance that Steve will not do anything to disrespect the court, Judge Aitken invites Steve’s partner to stand outside the dock. The young woman holds the baby to her body and walks forward. She stands as close to her partner as possible, although the wooden frame of the dock separates them. Steve keeps his hands at his side but stares, for the first time, at the face of his baby. His wide grin grows even wider. Māori cultural advisor Rawiri Pene, whose title Pou Oranga is a term that positions him as an example of wellbeing in the court, welcomes Steve. Judge Aitken urges Steve to embrace the first rule of the court – honesty. She echoes a common recovery saying: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

As she remands him in custody, so his transition to treatment can be organised. Judge Aitken puts her head down and studies her papers. This allows Steve to swiftly but tenderly kiss his partner. The young mother quickly lifts the baby up and Steve stoops down. He kisses his daughter for the first time, and there is no mistaking where this recidivist burglar will look for motivation on the protracted and gruelling road ahead.


Te Whare Whakapiki Wairua is the Māori name of the court. It translates to ‘the house that lifts the spirits’. The Pou Oranga opens each sitting by leading the AODT team in the court’s own waiata and karakia. The last two lines of the waiata read:

Kia kaha – kia ma-ia
– manawanui

Be strong – be brave – stout-hearted

Te Whare Whakapiki Wairua

In this house that lifts the spirits


The Waitakere AODT Court is held in a cramped courtroom on the ground floor of an ageing building. The room is rich in determination and enthusiasm.

“We catch more flies with flowers than vinegar,” Judge Tremewan says at the weekly pre-court meeting.

The court relies on a team with varied expertise. They represent the judiciary, the Justice Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Department of Corrections and New Zealand Police, and together, they agree on a joint course of action best suited to aid each participant’s recovery.

Sitting days begin with the closed pre-court meeting. The judge sits at courtroom floor level, and the team fan out around a semi-circle.

The Police prosecutor sits right next to the defence counsel. Sergeant Gavin English says the collaborative environment is unique for the Police, who are usually pitted against defence lawyers in a traditional adversarial court.

The judge lifts the first of dozens of blue files from a towering pile and reads out a name. The team works steadily through the morning, discussing each case.

Although the court’s point of difference is its focus on addiction, many participants need just as much help to address criminal thinking and behaviour.

One of the interventions provided is Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT). It is a 16-step cognitive-behavioural treatment programme targeted at overturning long-term criminal behaviour. The workbook is titled: How to Escape Your Prison.

One of the first files Judge Tremewan opens is that of a man with an extensive criminal career who has progressed to step 10 of MRT. He is much further through the MRT programme than any other drug court participant.

The judge asks the clinical team leader: “Would that be something positive for me to talk to him about today?”

They discuss a woman who is 70 days drug-free and arrange to give her a free zoo pass as a reward. Then there’s a man who will be presented with his six-month medal today, marking half a year in the court.

Every participant who has fulfilled all obligations since their last appearance – namely, being sober, being crime-free and attending all testing – is said to be “on the A Team”. The judge collects names for the A Team as she progresses through the files.

A woman who is fairly new to the court has disclosed “a use” in the past week and is struggling to take responsibility for the relapse.

Judge Tremewan tells the team she will praise the woman for disclosing the drug use to her case manager but, “I think now’s the time to give her a bit of a tune-up.”

Ejecting the woman from the programme is never mooted. “We know,” Judge Tremewan says, “the longer you keep them in the court, the more likely you are to get traction and change.”


The AODT Court uses a pre-sentence model whereby sentence is deferred while the offender works their way through the drug court programme. It takes most graduates 12–18 months.

If an offender drops out of the court or is kicked out, their offending is referred back to the traditional District Court for sentencing.

Tony Fisher, the Justice Ministry’s General Manager of District Courts, says that, by the end of October this year, there had been 165 participants accepted into the court. Of those, 18 had graduated and 59 had been “exited” from the court. Now that the court is two years old and a number of participants have been in the process long enough, the court is racking up graduates in quick succession. Judge Tremewan says, all going to plan, she will have one graduation each week for the next several weeks. Meanwhile, participants are less frequently leaving or being kicked out of the programme.

Fisher says: “International research has, though, found a reduction in offending and substance abuse for participants in similar courts who have not graduated.”

This view is supported by current research and leading international drug court experts such as Judge Peggy Fulton Hora.

However, research from New York’s Centre for Court Innovation suggests those who leave a drug court without graduating are “as or more likely as non-participants to reoffend”.

A research paper, titled Drug Courts an Effective Treatment Alternative, reads: “This means the benefits of the drug court accrue only to those who successfully complete.”


The drug court came about after the Law Commission’s 2011 review of the Misuse of Drugs Act recommended the government consider establishing a pilot (subject to a full analysis of the likely cost-effectiveness and availability of funding).

The five-year pilot was announced by then-Justice Minister Simon Power and then-Courts Minister Georgina te Heuheu in October 2011.

The court opened in November 2012 when then-Justice Minister Judith Collins said: “Dealing with an offender’s addiction prior to sentencing is a new approach for New Zealand. We want to reduce reoffending by giving offenders the opportunity to confront their drug and alcohol dependency, while still holding them to account for their actions.”

She said around 51 percent of offences were committed ‘under the influence’ of alcohol or other drugs.

“By looking at offending holistically, and taking into account the circumstances that have motivated the offending, we can help prevent these offenders from going on to commit further crimes. This will help keep people and communities safer,” the then-Minister said.

There are 3,000 drug courts in the United States, the first of which opened in 1989. One evening after court, Judge Tremewan told Matters of Substance that New Zealand’s delay in establishing drug courts has turned out to have one considerable advantage.

“The advantage of us coming to it so late is we can leapfrog over two decades of trial and error.”

New Zealand can discard the innovations that didn’t work elsewhere and selectively adopt the most successful practices. New Zealand is also developing its own world-leading strategies, such as the use of the Pou Oranga and peer support workers to walk alongside participants.

Judge Hora served 21 years on the California Superior Court and is considered a global authority on the “solution-focused courts movement”.

On a visit to New Zealand this month, she told Matters of Substance that, unlike any other court in the world, the New Zealand AODT Court has been founded entirely on evidence-based policies and procedures.

“The teams have been trained by international experts in effective methods and responses. The AODT Courts have the luxury of sitting atop 20+ years of rigorous research and being able to employ best practices from the outset.

“I have observed a very high level of commitment and dedication of all the partners and team members. I’ve also noticed a high level of cultural competence in these courts, exemplified by the appointment of the Pou Oranga, the Māori cultural advisor. As a result of these factors, I expect the New Zealand AODT Court to be the best in the world.”

Polly Websdell is the court’s clinical manager. She is in charge of the case managers, peer support workers and housing coordinator.

Websdell says the court specifically targets offenders who are of the highest risk and need. With that in mind, a smooth ride to graduation without a single stumble is not necessarily a measure of success.

“If people aren’t hitting the skids, [they’re] not high enough needs.”

Almost all court participants are unemployed when they enter the court and are heading for a custodial sentence so wouldn’t be working anyway. With that in mind, and the enormity of the journey ahead, the view of the court is that the work of recovery is the participant’s full-time job. They are encouraged to go to support group meetings, such as AA or Buddhist Recovery Network, as often as possible. They are also asked to attend courses that build social skills, such as anger management, literacy, parenting, driver safety and kaupapa Māori. Most do either extensive live-in or outpatient addiction therapy.

Participants are tested for drug use, both on a regular basis and at random, an average of five times a fortnight. They must place a phone call every morning to see whether they are required to do testing that day. Most travel by bus because they have lost their driver’s licence.

Participants provide urine for analysis. Many are also fitted with a high-sensitivity SCRAM bracelet, a chunky black plastic monitoring device worn on the ankle, which measures alcohol through the skin. All results are fed back to the court and placed inside the participant’s blue file. The judge keeps track of every result.


Another blue file is opened and read. A former homeless man has told his case worker he’s been accepted to do a Unitec course in mechanics.

The team discuss a woman who is fairly new to the court. She has been sober 22 days. She’s shy, lonely and isolated because she was so desperate for help, she moved to a new flat to be closer to the court and treatment. She’s pleading for pharmaceutical help to maintain the sobriety she is fighting hard for. She’d like Naltrexone – a drug that blocks the effects of opioids and has been shown to reduce cravings and relapse for users of some other substances.

But she’s doing ‘too well’ to qualify for the drug. The judge is clearly frustrated that this woman must first have a relapse before she can access a drug to prevent a relapse.

On the wall alongside the bench are three taonga – panels that symbolise the recovery journey. They are the work of Māori artist and Eastern Institute of Technology Associate Professor Steve Gibbs. There is one panel for each phase of the court process: serenity, courage and wisdom.


Drug court participants must report to the court at 12.40pm on the day of their next remand. The appearances are structured so that those on the A Team are dealt with first, and those who need more support that week are called later in the afternoon. The last offender to be called will have sat through an entire afternoon listening to the experiences of their peers. This way, participants see that others struggle, falter and pick themselves back up.

Today in Waitakere AODT Court, a special ceremony is about to take place. Furniture has been moved to create a space in the middle of the room.

“All rise for Her Honour, the Judge…” Judge Tremewan greets and compliments participants, the majority of whom identify as Māori, in te reo and English.

She says, in order to achieve good outcomes, it is important the AODT Courts are responsive to the needs of participants who come from different backgrounds.

“Just as the coat of arms under which New Zealand judges sit reflects our bicultural origins (depicting a Pāhekā woman and a Māori male), so too must the courts be culturally competent.

“We should also bear in mind that Māori are grossly over-represented in our country’s criminal justice statistics – this court can actively provide an opportunity for much more positive outcomes.”

In the 2013 Census, 14.9 percent of New Zealanders identified as Māori. However, Corrections Department data from June 2014 shows Māori account for more than half (50.8 percent) of the 8,500-strong New Zealand prison population.

The open session of the court starts with waiata and karakia. The judge announces the A Team. They stand to enthusiastic applause. Their names are put into a bowl, a draw takes place and the winner receives a $30 Countdown voucher (paid for by the fundraising of a community advisory group).

Then the judge calls the first case of the day: Kuini Witehira.

A woman in a cropped black jacket, red lipstick and straight black bob walks to the lectern. Judge Tremewan explains that Witehira has successfully applied to graduate from phase 3 of the AODT Court, which effectively means graduation from the whole programme.

“Kuini, you made an application to graduate, and you were successful.” The judge invites the team to address their latest graduate.

Police prosecutor Echo Haronga talks of Witehira’s “stunning transformation”.

Jim Boyack, team leader of the Waitakere AODT Court defence counsel, paraphrases Witehira’s own phase 3 application: “You are smiling from within and at peace with yourself.”

Witehira’s case manager Nichole Jones says: “I just see such a different woman standing in front of me today. You are strong and you are focused. You want a better life. I’ve loved working with you, Kuini. I’ve learnt a lot from you.”

Finally, Witehira unfolds a piece of paper and speaks. This is the final act in a rigorous programme that has introduced Witehira to a new way of life.

“I didn’t want to go to jail so I was given a choice to live in sobriety and walk in recovery.”

She addresses Judge Tremewan: “My heart is filled with the utmost respect.”

And then, as she celebrates her milestone the same week the court celebrates two years of operation, she says: “The AODT team are making a difference to society.”

Peer support workers rise from their seats in the public gallery to deliver an impassioned haka. Witehira stands tall and blinks, and a look crosses her face as though she can’t quite believe this is all for her.

Judge Tremewan explains that Witehira must now be sentenced for her crimes. She has admitted three counts of drink-driving in 2011 and 2012. She was around twice the legal limit each time, and these were her fourth, fifth and sixth drink-driving offences. She’s also admitted a change of perverting the course of justice for giving a false identity during yet another drinkdriving arrest. The judge says Witehira once posed a significant risk to the community but is entitled to credit for the immense amount of work she has done in the last 18 months.

She completed a 90-day Salvation Army programme developed especially for the AODT Court and programmes such as driver safety. Testing has revealed evidence of 336 days sober – she passed all of her 250 drug tests. She has attended more than 250 recovery meetings and contributed 220.5 hours of community work, is working full-time and is respected as a role model in her extended whānau.

“You’ve worked so hard, one day at a time.”

Judge Tremewan quotes the Corrections Department’s probation report, which says, because she has completed the drug court programme, Witehira is now deemed to be a low-risk offender. The report says she is highly motivated and committed to her recovery. Judge Tremewan imposes a sentence of 12 months’ supervision and wipes all Witehira’s fines.

It is anticipated Witehira will continue voluntary work as a commitment to the restorative justice principle of service to the community. She must be sober, crime-free and “self-supporting” through full-time work. In recognition of the road ahead and her determination to show respect for her recovery, Witehira has committed to attend 90 fellowship meetings in the next 90 days.

The judge smiles at Witehira. “Be the person we know you are capable of being.”

There are not enough treatment beds in Auckland to take all those who would qualify for drug court and are keen to commit to the programme, so numbers are restricted to the most in need and the most determined. An evaluation of the court that looked at its first year of operation showed that, of the 158 people who appeared before the court in the hope of being offered a place, 99 got in.

Established AOD treatment provider Odyssey House is the Health Ministry’s lead contractor for drug court support. It works alongside the Salvation Army and Higher Ground to service court demand with beds and treatment. The treatment providers also work with the Community Alcohol and Drug Service (CADS).

Odyssey has employed a housing coordinator. The well documented scarcity of stable and affordable Auckland housing can have a particularly detrimental impact for those trying to focus on recovery.

Anne Bateman is General Manager of Innovation and Development at Odyssey House. She says the collaboration between agencies is key to the court’s success. Together, they have the necessary capacity and expertise.

Next on the judges’ wishlist is a partnership with a committed physician to treat the various medical and dental issues facing the court’s participants.

A figure for the total cost of such holistic, intensive treatment is not yet available.

As the court is a multi-agency model, the accounts of various government departments will need to be assessed to arrive at a figure for the total monetary cost of the AODT Court system.

It is expected the two courts will continue to deal with around 100 offenders each year, at an annual treatment-related cost of about $2 million. In May this year, Prime Minister John Key pledged a further $105,000 to the court from money recovered under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act (CPRA).

District Courts General Manager Tony Fisher says the final evaluation of the court pilot will include an assessment of whether it has been cost-effective.

“This analysis will be completed at the end of 2016, with results in 2017. This timeframe allows for a robust evaluation, given that the court is a small pilot with a limited number of participants.”

Visiting Judge Hora says she expects the final analysis of the drug court pilot to be positive and lead to a full roll-out of the system.

“When evaluation shows the court to both reduce recidivism and be more costeffective, I would expect the policy makers to roll out this initiative to every criminal offender who needs this intense intervention.

“It is clearly the best way to approach high-risk/high-need offenders who, without close scrutiny and supervision, continue their lawlessness and endanger our communities.

“I’m not saying there is no place for prison as an appropriate response, but unless a life sentence is imposed, they will get out and are highly likely to reoffend.

“In the United States, research has shown that over 75 percent of treatment court graduates never see another pair of handcuffs – a group that traditionally is rearrested at the rate of 66 percent within three years.”

Judge Aitken believes robust analysis of the pilot will show that the social and financial cost of each offender continuing with a life of crime would have been much higher than the cost of holistic treatment.

She’s eager to see the cost-effectiveness analysis take into account all costs saved, including the costs of arrests prevented – and potential victims spared – because of the defendant’s involvement in the AODT Court. (A New Zealand Police spokesman told Matters of Substance the organisation did not have an agreed figure for the average cost of an arrest.)

And then there are the intergenerational costs of children suffering through their parent’s criminal behaviour, drinking or drug use. How much money do you save if a mother of 10, with 200-plus convictions, is turned off crime?

Clearly, expensive resources are directed at a very small number of New Zealanders in the drug court model. But Police say it’s worth it – these are one-time recidivist offenders who have now ceased to be a disproportionate burden on Police resources.

Senior Sergeant Verdun Tawhara is the Waitakere Police district prosecutions manager. He is also the prosecutions manager for both the Auckland and Waitakere sittings of the AODT Court.

He has three drug court prosecutors in Auckland and four in Waitakere, all drawn from the most senior ranks of his prosecutions staff. The New Zealand Police has put its best foot forward for this pilot.

Tawhara says his overarching impression is that, although many Police were originally wary about the model, the pilot has been a success. Police leaders in Waitakere and Auckland increasingly view the drug court model in a positive light.

“The Police recognise the prevention value of the court. The court assists with reducing victimisation,” he says.

Success can be measured in graduations – and in absences from the court lists. Tawhara says colleagues from other arms of the Police notice when one of their most prolific car thieves or burglars is suddenly out of the picture.

“We’re not constantly locking these people up any more.”

Tawhara says there were early concerns.

“It’s fair to say the Police view was a bit of trepidation to begin with. And prosecutors in other jurisdictions, particularly in Australia, weren’t comfortable with the drug court [model]. So we knew from that that it wasn’t always something we were always going to be happy with,” Tawhara says.

Tawhara says Australian Police had a major issue with burnout among drug court prosecutors, but his prosecutors are well supported and continue to work in the traditional adversarial court environment to keep their skills sharp.

There is sometimes tension between Police and judges around the behaviour and commitment of participants. Tawhara has made submissions to court to have people removed from the programme, usually on the back of Police intelligence that suggests they are offending or, in other ways, breaching programme conditions.

Sometimes, the judges will agree and exit a participant from the programme, enabling someone else to gain access to its considerable resources, but often the judges give offenders more leeway than Police would like.

“It’s an ongoing battle for the Police, at times, that the court adheres to the entry criteria that are set.”

However, Tawhara says the judges’ compassion and belief in the offenders’ ability to change is sometimes repaid with a miraculous turnaround.

“There are people I have asked to be exited who have ultimately been successful.”

One of those was Kuini Witehira.

Tawhara says, in general, those participants with the ability to form insight as to their situation, and the road ahead, appear to be best equipped to succeed. Many arrive at the drug court “cynical, arrogant, negative and trying to get out of custody”.

But if they stick with the programme long enough, a light slowly comes on. By the time they are heading for graduation, he says, participants are strongly motivated to remain sober.

Sergeant Gavin English says Witehira was an example of a woman whose heart and capability were hidden under addiction and offending.

“She’s … a really powerful, amazing woman, in actual fact. She was wellhidden … she battled.

“She was sitting on three active drink-drives. I would be hugely confident that she’s not going to be out drink-driving again.”

He says he wouldn’t say the same of someone who had been sentenced to two and a half years’ jail.


In Auckland AODT Court, a man is telling Judge Aitken how, with the encouragement of his peer support worker, he has reunited with his siblings for the first time in more than 20 years. Another man is celebrating 109 days without alcohol – the longest he has been sober in the community since he was at school 40 years ago.

A man who graduated from one of his treatment programmes two weeks ago has had a weekend of bingeing, ripped off his bracelet and ended up in custody. He is clearly devastated. Judge Aitken assures him he will be supported to get his recovery back on track.

“It takes a lot for this team to give up … We are with you.”

An offender who has been drinking today comes into the dock. He is desperate to enter the court – she warns him prison would be much easier, but he says he’s made up his mind. He wants in.

The judge points out a man standing at the back of the court with a suit jacket and a warm smile. Dougie was once where you are now, she says to the man, and Dougie smiles.

In a small room outside the court, Dougie details a life of excess. He started drinking heavily in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, at 13. He was a former high flyer, happily resident in the boozing culture of IT sales where he earned $200,000 a year. Then at 54, he was unemployed, bankrupt, had lost his home and his marriage and faced three charges of drink-driving at more than four times the legal limit.

“I’m powerless over alcohol.”

When he graduated from drug court,

he had been to 450 meetings in 450 days of sobriety.

“If I’d been put in jail, nothing would have changed and I would have come out more angry and not over my drinking in any way, shape or form.”


Judge Tremewan says she has been totally committed to the drug court model since the day five years ago when she first observed a drug court in the United States.

“It is not an easy option to be a participant in the AODT Court. In most respects, it is much harder to work on your issues and make wholesale changes rather than just do your time. But the results are dramatically better,” she says.

“You can’t punish away addiction.”

Judge Tremewan and Judge Aitken are determined the drug court pilot will succeed so it can be rolled out nationwide.

Back in the Waitakere AODT Court, a young man is making his application to move from phase 1 of the court programme to phase 2. Earlier this year, he broke into his mother’s house, stole his brother’s car and destroyed it. He says he now knows there’s a wonderful world out there and he doesn’t need drugs or alcohol to enjoy it.

He wants to be a qualified builder in five years.

“I want to fall in love and have a family. Thank you for this opportunity. It has honestly saved my life.”

Another young man is applying to graduate from the programme. He is drug-free, hasn’t reoffended and is now planning to study full-time from 2015 to become a youth worker.

“Thanks for fighting for me. It was worth it – I made it.”

The korowai of this court has sat firmly around his shoulders for the past year. He has a list of people and agencies to thank. Finally, he looks at the Police prosecutor and grins.

“New Zealand Police: I won’t be seeing you guys no more, except to say hello.”

*Steve is a pseudonym, but all other names used are real.

Keri Welham is a Tauranga-based writer. Photographer Stephen Piper is a location scout from Auckland.




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