Gavin Hawthorn: sending him to prison does not make us any safer

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Gavin Hawthorn: 13 convictions for drink driving

News that Gavin Hawthorn has recently been convicted of drink driving yet again has caused oodles of outrage in the media. Hawthorn has already killed four people in two separate accidents. In 2004 he was convicted of manslaughter over the death of his friend Lance Fryer and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released in 2013 and has now been caught drink-driving again – for the 13th time. On this occasion Judge Johnston sentenced him to six months home detention and disqualified him from driving for two years.

The headlines were horrified. Stuff stated it like this: Recidivist drink-driver Gavin Hawthorn convicted again, leading to call for permanent driving ban. Newshub harrumphed that it was ‘Appalling’: Porirua man Gavin Hawthorn escapes jail after 12th drink-driving conviction. The Herald highlighted: NZ’s worst drink driver caught drunk behind the wheel again. Duncan Garner was especially incensed arguing that:

“This judge has failed to keep us safe as New Zealanders. We’ve been let down by his profession once again. He has let us down, now we are in harm’s way.” He went on to say the case was an example of why the public “have little confidence in the justice system”.

Blaming judges is misguided and myopic.  This is what Garth McVicar and the senseless sentencing trust have been doing for years. All that has achieved is a burgeoning prison population and a crisis in capacity. At $100,000 per prisoner, per year and a reoffending rate of 60% within two years of release, clearly this is a failed strategy – and a massive waste of taxpayer money.

Keeping us safe

The justification for all this moral outrage is the dubious assumption that sending ‘dangerous’ people to prison ‘keeps us safe’. Does it? Let’s look at the facts.

Gavin Hawthorn killed his last victim in 2003. Between 2003 and 2017, another 5,402 people have died on New Zealand roads – an average of 360 people a year – or nearly one every day. Half of these deaths are caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both.

The point is that most of these people died during the ten years that Hawthorn was in prison. Clearly his incarceration did not make us any safer. Giving the judge a hard time for not sending him to prison on his current conviction does not change this reality.

So, what’s the solution? The only intelligent comments in the media came from Andrew Dickens on NewstalkZB who asked rather quaintly: What to do with our drinkiest drink driver?  He argued with considerable insight that:

“Indefinite incarceration and licence deprivation is not what this man needs. What he needs is to STOP FREAKING DRINKING.”

Drug courts

Dickens’ answer to the problems posed by the likes of Gavin Hawthorn is to put him into a drug court (in New Zealand known as AODTC – Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts). To be eligible, defendants must be alcohol or drug dependent and facing a prison sentence. A treatment plan for each participant is developed by the judge, taking into account the views of treatment providers, support workers and lawyers; it involves rehabilitation, counselling, drug-testing, community service and making amends to victims.

Dickens describes the process like this:

“They’re a three-phase, 18-month-long programme designed for high-needs and high-risk addicts who are facing prison, or who have tried but failed treatment programmes in the past.”

Drug courts have the potential to help thousands of offenders, not just drink drivers. And there is no shortage of available candidates in New Zealand. In 2011, judges told the Law Commission that 80% of all offending was alcohol and drug related. In 2017, Northland district court  judge, Greg Davis, who sees a lot of methamphetamine related crime, said up to 90% of all offending was related to issues with addiction.

Currently, the only two drug courts in the country are both in Auckland. Hawthorn is serving his sentence of Home Detention in Paraparaumu – so a drug court in Wellington would be helpful. We need such courts in all our major cities.

Compulsory AOD assessment

Another strategy is available to target drink drivers in particular – one that also involves assessment and treatment. Currently out of 20,000 people convicted of this offence each year, only 5% – those disqualified indefinitely – are required to have an alcohol and drug assessment to see if they have their drinking under control before getting their driver’s licence back. Many of the remainder are sent to prison – just like Gavin Hawthorn. If any drink driver who incurred a second conviction was required by law to have an AOD assessment before their disqualification could be lifted, fully half of the 20,000 drink drivers would be assessed. As a result, there would be a lot less people in prison.

An evaluation of the NZ drug courts shows they also reduce imprisonment – 282 participants have been kept out of prison during the six years the two Auckland courts have been operating.

So if the government implemented these two strategies, this would shift the focus of our justice system away from punishing alcohol and drug addicted offenders towards treating them instead.  This would surely help Justice Minister, Andrew Little, get closer to the Government goal of reducing the prison population by 30%. Maybe it would even moderate the media to tone down their moral outrage.

Qualified addiction counsellors not wanted in NZ prisons

addictionIn April last year, Radio New Zealand reported that the Corrections Department was paying for non-existent alcohol and drug counsellors. The story omitted the fact that most of the AOD counsellors who do work in the prisons are not actually qualified – at least not in addiction treatment.

The qualifications required to work as an AOD counsellor in prison are described in tender documents issued by Corrections recently. The documents relate to Drug Treatment Units (DTUs), the prison programme that inmates with addictions are required to attend. The tender states:

“DTU programme clinical staff and the DTU clinical manager will have a relevant qualification in psychology, counselling, psychotherapy or similar.

no-experienceRemarkably, the document does not specify that the ‘relevant qualification’ has to be a graduate degree. Nor does it state that clinicians require a qualification in the assessment and treatment of addictive disorders.

Currently an AOD agency called CareNZ has contracts with Corrections to run eight of the nine DTUs. CareNZ also has contracts with a number of DHBs up and down the country to provide addiction treatment to the public in community clinics. The DHB contracts are a great more specific. For example, CareNZ’s contract with the Waikato DHB says:

“Clinicians employed to deliver these services must have a level VII (graduate) AOD specific qualification.”

Clearly, the DHB’s want value for money; they want professional clinicians to treat addicts – ones who are specifically qualified in the treatment of addictive disorders. But Corrections doesn’t seem to care. Perhaps that’s because their clients are only prisoners – so any old counsellor with any old qualification will do. If that’s their attitude, no wonder drug treatment in prison doesn’t work.

Review of DTU’s under CareNZ

And it doesn’t work. Hundreds of inmates are put through these DTU programmes each year and they reduce reoffending by less than 5%. Mind you, 11 of the 12 rehabilitation programmes in prison don’t work. Corrections management are concerned about this because in 2011, Government set the Department a goal to reduce reoffending by 25% by June this year.

carenzThe Department seems to think the poor performance of the DTUs is CareNZ’s fault. They even initiated an evaluation of CareNZ’s performance by an independent consulting company, Julian King & Associates.   Amazingly, the independent review reported that CareNZ was doing fine. See Corrections pays consultant to whitewash failure of rehabilitation programme.

So when RNZ reported that Corrections was paying for non-existent counsellors, Corrections’ Southern Regional Commissioner, Ben Clark, spun the story like this. He said:

“If we had cause for concern that Care NZ weren’t delivering an effective service to our offenders, and weren’t giving the taxpayer good value for money, then absolutely we would look to put that money elsewhere, but so far we have no evidence of that being the case.”

Less than 12 months later, Corrections has decided to put the taxpayers’ money elsewhere. They’ve put the DTU contracts up for tender.  The tender process is nearly complete and my sources tell me that six of CareNZ’s eight contracts have now been offered to other AOD treatment agencies. But as described above, neither CareNZ nor any of the new treatment agencies will not be required to use qualified or experienced clinicians.

Prison inmates have extra needs

comorbidThis makes no sense whatsoever. There are now over 10,000 people in prison in New Zealand and up to 90% of them have problems with substance abuse. At least 45% of inmates also have underlying personality disorders, mental health problems, and learning disabilities. They often use alcohol and drugs to alleviate the symptoms associated with these disorders.

Not forgetting that addictions are hard to treat at the best of times; treating inmates with coexisting disorders is even tougher. The counsellors who work in prison therefore need to be as qualified, if not more qualified and more experienced, than AOD clinicians in the community. At the very least, they need to have a graduate degree in the assessment and treatment of addictive disorders; and they need at least five years’ experience working with addicts in the community before starting work in a prison.

So what’s happened is that Corrections has used CareNZ as a scapegoat. That particular agency’s role in the prison system has been cut, but nothing will change if the clinicians doing the counselling can’t cut the mustard.  To use another analogy, changing agencies is akin to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; unless the right people are sitting in the right chairs, the ship is still going to sink.

$350 million missed by Peter Dunne

New Zealanders want the Government to toughen up – not by putting more people in prison but by tackling the death and social destruction caused by binge drinking. Research conducted on behalf of the Ministry of Health shows huge public support for moves to raise the minimum price of alcohol. The survey shows the vast majority support raising the price with only 24% opposed; 65% support reducing the hours alcohol can be sold; more than 75% support raising the drinking age to 20 (including 68% of people aged 18 to 24); 82% support increasing restrictions on alcohol advertising; and 65% believe there are too many liquor outlets.

The research validates recommendations in the Law Commission’s recent report on proposed changes to New Zealand’s liquor legislation. The Commission’s recommendations were also endorsed by Prof Doug Sellman and hundreds of medical professionals in New Zealand as the ‘5+ Solution’ – based on the most up to date international research on how to reduce alcohol related harm in society.

Raising the price

The research indicates that raising the price of alcohol – by increasing the tax component – is the single most effective intervention that any government can take. Increased levies would affect two groups in particular – the young, who tend to have limited income to spend to alcohol, and binge drinkers who spend a significant proportion of their income on alcohol. These are the problem groups in society that need to be hit the hardest.

Peter Dunne apparently had the results of this survey sitting on his desk in mid-2010 while National was in the process of seeking further submissions from the public on this issue – but refused to publish it. He sat on the report for over a year and, when it finally became public two days ago, he was accused of suppressing the results. Interviewed on National Radio, he denied suppressing anything, but gave two reasons for failing to publish it. One was that “the data was essentially consistent with a range of public views already available”. The other was that the $10,000 it would have cost to publish “could be better spent elsewhere in the health sector”.

Hollow arguments

These are hollow arguments. Until now, the two main sources of information about public attitudes to binge drinking came from unscientific media polls and public outrage at the damage alcohol has been causing. Coverage given to the death of 16 year old King’s College student James Webster from alcoholic overdose may have been a turning point in public opinion.

However, the research that Peter Dunne had sitting on his desk was conducted by a Ministry of Health committee using scientifically validated methodology and procedures. As such, it was the only reliable source of information on the public attitudes to alcohol law reform available. So to argue that there was no need to publish the report because the data was essentially consistent with an existing range of views is nonsense. Media stories are anecdotal and unreliable and ideally should not be used to guide policy and legislation. For that we need facts, figures and reliable research.

The argument put forward by Mr Dunne that the $10,000 needed to publish the report “could be better spent elsewhere in the health sector” is even more facetious. Mr Dunne expanded on this in his radio interview by saying that Government didn’t want to spend the $10,000 because it was scratching around to find money for its methamphetamine strategy at the time. Once again, Mr Dunne is missing the point – well two points actually.

Alcohol the biggest drug problem

The first is that alcohol is by far the biggest drug problem in the country – not methamphetamine. Alcohol kills over 1,000 New Zealanders every year and according to Bryan Easton, a leading economist, it costs the country about $16 billion a year. In comparison, methamphetamine is involved in perhaps two deaths a year – not from overdose but because of the occasional murder committed under its influence – while alcohol is involved in over half of the 60 to 80 murders committed every year. If a choice has to be made between the social destruction caused by alcohol or by methamphetamine, dealing with binge drinking provides a lot more bang for our bucks.

The second point Mr Dunne has overlooked is that if the Government actually adopted the recommendation to increase the price of alcohol – as supported by the ‘suppressed’ research – this would raise $350 million. That’s what the Law Commission said a 10% increase in the price of alcohol would achieve. And right now New Zealand needs every source of revenue it can find. Christchurch needs rebuilding, public servants are being laid off left right and centre, and the country is facing the biggest deficit in its history.

And we have a binge drinking culture which is out of control. Under the circumstances, Government’s reluctance raise the price of alcohol (and adopt the other measures supported by this research) is hard to fathom. This ‘suppressed’ research suggests Mr Dunne is not interested in what the public clearly wants the Government to do – raise the price – and pick up $350 million along the way. As Revenue Minister, there’s a lot you could do with it; and you’ll get your $10,000 back.

A Dunne deal – compulsory alcohol and drug assessments on all parolees

United Future’s Peter Dunne has just thrashed out an agreement with Prime Minister John Key whereby Mr Dunne retains his role as associate Minister of Health and National will implement a number of United Future’s policies.  Among those policies is one I have been advocating for some time – that the Parole Board should be given an alcohol and drug assessment on all prisoners appearing before the Board.

Currently this doesn’t happen which means the Parole Board is ‘flying blind’. This was a comment on the problem by the Head of the Parole Board, Judge David Carruthers. It  became the title of my new book: Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.  

Flying Blind points out that section 43 of the Parole Act requires the Department to provide “copies of all relevant information relating to the offender’s current and previous convictions” but that the Corrections Department has been ignoring this requirement for years.  The book  identifies the lack of alcohol and drug assessments on parolees as one the systemic failures of the Corrections Department which contributes to New Zealand’s high rate of recidivism.  On page 141,  it says:

“The failure to comply with section 43 is a serious omission which compromises the Board’s ability to keep the community safe. It means that prisoners are frequently released without attending substance abuse treatment in prison or on release, because the Board was not told that alcohol or drugs were involved in their offending.”

Flying Blind documents a number of other systemic failures by the Corrections Department to assist prisoners reintegrate back into the community.  One of these is the lack of addiction treatment agencies in the community who will take offenders from prison.  One has to ask:  What is the point of assessing prisoners coming up for release when there are so few treatment programmes available in the community that will take them?

This is all part of the appalling lack of accommodation and support which is available when prisoners are released.  Most of those who end up in prison have been the victims of dysfunctional families and all kinds of adversity in their childhood. There’s not much point in putting offenders through rehabilitation in prison but then not providing them with extensive support on release. In a press release, Mr Brooking said:

“That’s like expecting a man with two broken legs to start walking if you put a plaster cast on just one leg. It’s totally unrealistic – because both legs need fixing. If prisoners go back to the same alcohol and drug filled environment they came from, no amount of rehabilitation in prison is going to make any difference. The real problem is a lack of accommodation, halfway houses, treatment facilities and professional support in the community.”

Wine contains fantasy – a Class B drug

The NZ Herald reports that: “Drinkers of wine, sherry and port may be unknowingly breaking the law and consuming small doses of the party drug fantasy, an illegal class B drug. The revelation has brought calls for wine to be tested to see if there are traces of gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), or its precursor gamma-butyrolactone (GBL) – the active ingredient in fantasy.”

National Addiction Centre director Doug Sellman said it seemed likely that some wine contained GHB, and called for more research.

“It raises the bizarre conclusion that many wines in New Zealand may, in fact, be technically illegal. There’s been no research done on New Zealand wines, and only one article in 2005 in the international literature.”

Wellington alcohol and drug counsellor Roger Brooking came across this research after being advised about it by one of his clients. He notes that Prof Sellman has made previous media comments that because of the death and social destruction caused by alcohol, it is the legal equivalent of a Class B drug anyway. It seems wine that wine drinkers can now get two class B drugs for the price of one.