James Whenuaroa – sent to prison for stealing orange juice

On January 7, the New Zealand Herald reported the story of James Whenuaroa – sentenced to prison for six weeks for stealing a bottle of orange juice from a supermarket. He told the judge he took it because he was hot and thirsty. Perhaps the most pertinent part of the story was that Mr Whenuaroa has 350 previous convictions.

What the Herald didn’t report was that Mr Whenuaroa is a chronic alcoholic who has a history of drinking methylated spirits and as a result, has some measure of cognitive impairment. Virtually his entire history of offending has occurred because of his drinking – mostly for shoplifting alcohol, being drunk and disorderly and willful trespass. He has been sent to prison nearly 40 times in the last 20 years; he’s usually in and out three or four times a year. When he gets out, he starts drinking again the same day.

The battle for a neuropsychological assessment

Mr Whenuaroa was referred for an alcohol and drug assessment at least three times – in 2006, 2007 and 2008. After interviewing him in 2006, I recommended to the Court that Mr Whenuaroa should have a neuropsychological assessment (to see what he’s capable of learning) and be referred to Moana House which is a long term rehabilitation programme in Dunedin. The judge ignored the recommendation and sent Mr Whenuaroa to prison instead.

In 2007 I again recommended a neuropsychological assessment. This time the judge agreed, but when Mr Whenuaroa appeared for sentencing two months later, the assessment had not been done as the psychologist was too busy. Moana House refused to accept him without one. He was released on to the street and relapsed immediately. Not surprisingly Mr Whenuaroa re-offended soon afterwards and was remanded in prison once again.

The assessment was finally completed nearly a year later. However, this time the Court refused to release a copy of it either to his lawyer, to Moana House or to myself. Once again, Mr Whenuaroa was released into the street and relapsed immediately. Not surprisingly, he reoffended and appeared in court again in 2008. Finally, the court agreed to release a copy of the psychologist’s report to those who were trying to help him and Mr Whenuaroa eventually made it to Moana House. However, he left after a few weeks as he wanted to go and see his alcoholic girlfriend in Taupo.

The need for compulsory treatment

Over the years Mr Whenuaroa has been referred to residential treatment programs a number of times. But because of years of alcohol abuse, he has significant memory problems. His short term memory is so poor he struggles to remember anything he was told more than 30 minutes before.  So even when he attends rehabilitation, he can’t remember what he is taught. Because of his condition, he needs long term treatment and long-term support afterwards. But he never lasts the distance. He gets frustrated and generally walks off after a few weeks. And no one makes him stay.

Mr Whenuaroa can be made to stay in prison – for a few weeks at a time. That’s easy to achieve – even though rehabilitation is not available to the 7000 prisoners a year given short sentences.  Let’s not forget that 80% of those sent to prison each year are given short sentences and our prison system simply doesn’t cater for them. With a few exceptions, only those given a sentence of more than two years are allowed to attend rehabilitation programmes.

So although Mr Whenuaroa has been forced to stay in prison 40 times, he has never been ‘forced’ to complete a treatment programme. That’s just crazy. Mr Whenuaroa could be compelled to stay in treatment – by committing him to a rehab programme in the community under the Alcohol and Drug Act or the Mental Health Act. To put that in place takes a bit of time, thought and energy but Mr Whenuaroa has never been committed. Instead the justice system recycles him – in and out of prison, and occasionally, in and out of rehab.

The $3 million cost

Recycling is expensive. He’s already 47 years old and as a lifetime offender, he will end up costing the taxpayer more than $3 million in police, court, prison and legal aid costs. Once his health deteriorates, he will need even more assistance – from the health system. If he was compelled to attend long term treatment for 18 months under the Alcohol and Drug Act, that might cost about $50,000. Not a bad investment – both for Mr Whenuaroa and for society. All it would take is for the justice system to have enough compassion and resolve to find out what Mr Whenuaroa really needs – instead of sending him to prison for stealing a bottle of orange juice.

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