Two months ago I was asked to interview Brian Hart, a 58 year old chronic alcoholic on his 20th conviction for drink driving. My job was to figure out how bad his drinking problem was and what treatment he needed. I discovered that as a child he had been physically abused and eventually abandoned by his parents. As a result he had long-standing personality problems. He started drinking at age 16 and by the time I met him, he had been in and out of court for 40 years. In addition to 20 convictions for drink driving, he had over 200 other convictions for a variety of offences and had been sent to prison 33 times.
It was blatantly obvious that Mr Hart had a drinking problem but despite 40 years of court appearances, not one judge had told him to go to rehab. They just sent him to prison and disqualified him from driving. His offences were all relatively minor so his prison sentences (and his disqualifications) were always quite short – usually 12 months or less. Even in prison he had never been given any help.
When I interviewed him it was very clear that if he was ever going to stop drinking or stop reoffending, he needed to attend a long-term residential treatment programme. I recommended he should go to Moana House for a minimum of 12 months.
Mr Hart has had a hard life. But the justice system has not only failed to help him, it has also allowed him to continue driving, which affects the rest of us. Because his prison sentences were roughly the same length as his period of disqualification (usually one year), by the time he got out of prison, his disqualification was already over and he was allowed to drive again. That’s because his disqualification always started the same day he went to prison – not after he got out.
And that’s not the only loophole in the law. Currently, the legislation allows drink drivers given a fixed period of disqualification to automatically get their licence back at the end of the disqualification – without being assessed by an alcohol and drug counsellor. See Legal loophole in drink driving laws. That’s why so many drink drivers – about 10,000 a year – reoffend.
As the law currently stands, the only time a drink driver has to see a clinician to be assessed is if the judge mandates him into treatment or gives him an ‘indefinite’ disqualification. Mr Hart was disqualified indefinitely for the first time in 2002 – on his 16th conviction for drink-driving. A year or so later (after serving time in prison) he approached an approved alcohol and drug assessment centre hoping to get his licence reinstated.
Mr Hart was required to attend group therapy twice a week and individual counselling once a week to help him stop drinking. After only four weeks, his clinicians told the NZTA that Mr Hart had completed his ‘treatment’ and should get his driver’s licence back. Bizarre as it seems, the Agency agreed. They ignored the fact that Mr Hart was an alcoholic with a long history of offending – and it should be no surprise that he relapsed a few weeks later. Mr Hart has now incurred another four convictions for drink-driving. It’s amazing he hasn’t killed anyone.
New Zealand allows these offenders back on the road far too easily. The vast majority of the 30,000 Kiwis convicted of drink driving every year are disqualified for a finite period – usually between six and 12 months. They get their licence back at the end of their disqualification with no questions asked – even if they spent the entire time in prison. The only ones that have to undergo an assessment (and treatment if required) to get their licence back are the 1,500 drivers disqualified indefinitely each year. These guys are by definition, high-risk recidivist offenders.
After his indefinite disqualification, Mr Hart was assessed by a doctor and a psychologist – both of whom had an interest in addiction but may have had only limited qualifications and experience in the assessment and treatment of alcoholics. The fact that they recommended Mr Hart should get his licence back after 16 convictions for drink-driving and a one-month intervention is bewildering. But this kind of incompetence is standard practice. More than half of the 100 clinicians who have been approved to conduct these assessments for NZTA up and down the country are not registered as competent alcohol and drug clinicians. For more on this subject, see Government agencies use ‘incompetent’ counsellors to assess recidivist drink drivers.
The definition of insanity
So what happened to Mr Hart when he appeared in court on his 20th conviction? Did the judge send him to rehab? Of course not – he was sent to prison again – for the 34th time. This is an expensive strategy. As a lifetime offender, Mr Hart has already cost the taxpayer about $3 million. Sending him to prison doesn’t help Mr Hart and, since he keeps getting his licence back, it doesn’t protect society either.
As a repeat drink driver, the worst that might be said about Mr Hart is that he is a ‘bloody idiot’. But it’s not all his fault. The legislation that allows him – and hundreds of other repeat offenders – to get their licences back so easily is full of loopholes. Here’s another example: Serious drink-drivers slip through legal loophole. These loopholes need to be blocked.
But it’s equally important that judges realise they’ve been perpetuating the problem for years by consistently failing to mandate repeat drink drivers into rehab. Einstein described insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. Mr Hart might be a bloody idiot. But the judges who keep sending him to prison thinking that will change his behaviour must surely be insane.