Why the Auckland drug court failed to reduce the prison population

The information in this article is taken from a 6,000 word research assignment: ‘Identify the Challenges facing the New Zealand Alcohol & Other Drug Court (AODTC)’ prepared for my Honours degree in Criminology at VUW.

Former Justice Minister Andrew Little

In 2018, former Justice Minister, Andrew Little, announced the Labour-led Government wanted to reduce the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years.  At the time, the muster had surged past 10,000. We were locking up so many people that, at the rate we were going, Little said the country would need to build a new prison every two or three years. Although the 30% goal was clear, how Mr Little and his Labour colleagues intended to achieve it was not.

One piece of legislation contributing to the problem is the Bail Amendment Act, passed in 2013, in response to the murder of Christie Marceau. This more than doubled the number of offenders held in prison on remand.  Repealing this onerous law, which according to some authorities breaches human rights, would bring the muster down.  Although Labour now has an unencumbered mandate, so far, the new Minister of Justice, Kris Faafoi, has had little to say other than offer platitudes about the need for “dispassionate and evidence-based examinations of ‘adverse events’.”  Another strategy bandied about by Andrew Little in 2018 was to expand the use drug courts –  designed to keep recidivist, high risk offenders, whose crimes are driven by alcohol and/or drug addictions, out of prison. 

The first drug courts were set up in 2012 by the National Government. One was started in Waitakere, the other in Auckland. Together, they were known as the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court or the AODTC. To get into the AODTC, offenders have to commit a crime serious enough to warrant up to three years in prison – assuming they were sentenced in the usual way in the district court.  But in the drug court, they are ‘sentenced’ to treatment rather than to prison. This could involve residential rehabilitation, mental health treatment, anger management, or any other counselling and support the judge and the treatment team deem appropriate.

The process takes up to 18 months. Participants come back to court on a regular basis so the judge can monitor their response to treatment and their compliance with drug testing to ensure they remain abstinent. The process is so intensive, the AODTC can only handle 100 participants at a time.

Drug courts 10 times more effective than treatment in prison

Internationally, drug courts are one of the most effective interventions available to reduce reoffending. The two drug courts in Auckland are no exception. Since the pilot was established in 2012, 46% of participants have graduated (see Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court quantitative outcomes evaluation 2018–19). Graduates are 62% less likely to reoffend and 71% less likely to return to prison in the first 12 months after treatment. When non-graduates are included in the analysis, 54% (of participants overall) are less likely to reoffend and 58% less likely to go back to prison. Compare those figures with addiction treatment in prison which reduces reoffending by only 5% in the year after release.  It means the drug court in Auckland is up to 10 times more effective at reducing reoffending than treatment in prison.   

Unfortunately, this has no impact on the prison population. That’s because the AODTC only takes 100 participants at any one time. The 46% that graduated is made up of only 220 offenders who stayed out of prison over the six years the pilot was running – an average of 37 less prisoners each year. Given that New Zealand has been incarcerating up to 10,000 people, 37 less is a mere drop in the bucket. That doesn’t enable the Corrections Department to lay off any staff, let alone close a prison.

In order to have any impact on the prison population, we would need many more such courts and would need to keep hundreds of offenders out of prison. Unfortunately, the Government has been extremely reluctant to roll drug courts out nationwide.

The target group

Clearly, there is no shortage of potential drug court candidates. According to Corrections, the vast majority of prisoners have alcohol and drug/and or mental health problems;  42% are assessed with a moderate to high risk of re-offending, which is the target group the drug court is designed to tackle. That’s around 3,500 inmates who could benefit from addiction treatment in a drug court. If 46% graduated, the prison population would be reduced by about 1,600. The Government would be well on its way towards reducing the muster by 30%. We could even close a prison.

Since it costs $120,000 to keep one person in prison for 12 months, this would lead to substantial savings to the taxpayer. With 1,600 less prisoners, the savings would be in the vicinity of $192 million a year. After five years, that’s nearly $1 billion.

Despite the extraordinary effectiveness of the AODTC pilot, former Justice Minister Andrew Little announced that only two new drug courts would be established – in Hamilton and Hawkes Bay. That may keep another 50 or 60 offenders out of prison.  But it won’t make any difference to the prison population, and it won’t lead to any savings.

This begs the question: Why is the Government so reluctant to roll drug court out nationwide? The short answer is that Andrew Little, has been listening to the wrong people. This link takes the reader to a fuller explanation.

One thought on “Why the Auckland drug court failed to reduce the prison population

  1. Absolutely puzzling but it’s no surprise they use all these models but if you ask the wrong question no model will help you. Getting the question right is the first step.


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