Obviously, not everyone who drinks and drives has a drinking problem. But many do. For someone who does have a drinking problem, poor decision-making is almost inevitable. The offender’s ability to think clearly is impaired by the continued abuse or dependence on alcohol. This impaired capacity was highlighted by a potentially amusing story reported in the NZ Herald in November, 2008. A woman in Hastings who had been drinking got into her car to drive home and on the way home, she got a flat tyre. In her inebriated state, she dropped in at the local police station to ask for help. Not surprisingly, the police smelt alcohol on her breath and she was subsequently charged with drink driving.
This case illustrates that for some drinkers, the cognitive capacity for sensible decision-making is largely non-existent. They’re drunk when they make the decision to drink and drive. However, when it comes to sentencing, judges should have no such excuse. But when it comes to addressing the underlying problem, many judges seem to make equally poor decisions. They repeatedly fail to order 95% of drink drivers to attend an assessment to find out if they have a drinking problem.
The shortage of treatment programmes
In 2010, judges told the Law Commission they struggle to order offenders into treatment because of the shortage of treatment facilities in the community. This argument has considerable merit. Numerous residential treatment programmes have closed in the last ten years and there are long waiting lists for those that still exist. But in some regions, courts don’t seem to be aware that funding is available from the Justice Department itself to pay for alcohol and drug assessments on these offenders. Judges in Wellington are an exception to this and utilise 80% of the $1 million put aside for these assessments.
This judicial reluctance to get offenders assessed is not confined to the rehabilitation of drink drivers. About 130,000 people are convicted in New Zealand each year for a huge variety of offences – 80% of it alcohol and drug related. However, judges order only about 5% of all offenders who appear in Court to have an AOD assessment.
Weak penalties for drink drivers in NZ
At the same time, New Zealand has some of the weakest penalties for drink driving in the western world. In Britain and Canada (and many states in the US), a 1st drink driving offence incurs a minimum disqualification period of one year. In New Zealand, the minimum is only six months for the 1st and 2nd conviction; a mandatory one year disqualification is only imposed for a 3rd offence. In Australia, a 2nd or subsequent offence incurs a minimum of three years disqualification. In Canada a 2nd offence leads to a two year disqualification. In Britain, drink drivers get three years for a 2nd offence.
Also, these other countries generally require drink drivers to attend counselling or treatment for their drinking problem before getting their drivers licence back. In New Zealand, 95% of drink drivers automatically get their driver’s licence back at the end of their period of disqualification – without even being assessed to see whether they have a drinking problem. One is inevitably led to the conclusion that the government and the justice system have little interest in rehabilitation and little commitment to dealing with the underlying causes of offending. In fact, our system does so little to stop drink-drivers from drinking or driving that it ‘enables’ and encourages this kind of offending to continue.