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

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.

The obscene Money money story – as reported by the Waikato Times

The Waikato Times recently printed a story with the headline ‘Obscene amount spent on prison healthcare.’ It said that in 2013, the Corrections Department spent $24 million on  healthcare and the writer, Belinda Feek, said “The spend has left some commentators outraged knowing that offenders would get immediate access to care while many of their victims are forced to wait a number of years.”

Ruth MoneyThe only outraged ‘commentator’ mentioned in the story is Ruth Money (left) of the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust. Ms Money clearly knows nothing about the availability of medical care in New Zealand prisons – so she made up some nonsense which the Waikato Times then published as if it was true.

Let’s look at a few facts.  The story has only one accurate statement. It quotes Bronwyn Donaldson, the director of offender heath for Corrections, who notes the Department has “a statutory obligation to provide a primary healthcare service to prisoners that is reasonably equivalent to that found in the community.” That ‘fact’ is established by section 75 of the Corrections Act 2004.

The ratio of doctors to prisoners

Everything else in the story is dodgy. In order for there to be any chance of an ‘equivalent’ level of care in prison, key features of the systems need to be similar. For instance the ratio of doctors to prisoners needs to be similar to the ratio of doctors to patients in the community.  But Corrections doesn’t get anywhere near this. In 2010, there were 13,883 full-time general practitioners in New Zealand. This translates to 317 doctors per 100,000 of the population – or one doctor for every 315 people.

The Times story mentions Springhill and Rangipo prisons. Springhill, with 1050 prisoners, has a doctor on duty for only 18 hours a week. That’s a ratio of one full time doctor for 2,333 prisoners. Rangipo, with 540 prisoners, has a doctor on duty for only seven hours a week. That provides a full time equivalent of one doctor for 3,085 patients.  With those ratios, the chance of prisoners getting “immediate access to care” is almost zero. The reality is that one of the most common complaints made by prisoners is that they can’t get to see a doctor when they need to – which sometimes has fatal results. Jai Davis, who was admitted to Otago prison in 2011 suspected of ‘internally concealing’ drugs. He died two days later because there was no doctor on duty and none of the nurses or prison staff bothered to call one.

Pill in mouthCorrections’ discouraged medication policy

In order for prisoners to receive equivalent care, they also have to have access to the same drugs and medications available to the public. But they’re not. Section 6.1.1 of the Department’s medication policy states: “Prescribing medication that can be misused/abused or has some economic value in a prison environment (or example benzodiazepines, opioids and zopiclone) is actively discouraged. A clinically suitable alternative medication or treatment option is preferred.”

Opioids are used for the relief of severe pain. But this ‘discouraged medication policy’ extends well beyond pain relief.  All medications including antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs are taken away from prisoners – usually on their first day in prison –  while the nurse checks with the prisoner’s GP.  Although this practice varies from one prison to another, often such medications are never reinstated. In The Effects of Imprisonment on Inmates’ and their Families’ Health and Wellbeing Dr Michael Roguski, provides numerous case studies which illustrate the suffering this policy causes.  It contributes to depression, anxiety and sometimes to suicide.

Given these deficiencies, it is not surprising that the suicide rate in prison is five to six times higher than the suicide rate in the community. In 2011, so many prisoners killed themselves it was eleven times higher. That’s a fact.

Medical ethics and the Crimes Act

The reality is that denying patients clinically appropriate medication, especially those in severe pain or with mental health disorders, is inhumane and a breach of human rights. If prison doctors follow this policy, they’re breaching their medical ethics which require them to put the welfare of their patients first – rather than arbitrary prison policies. They could even be charged with breaching section 151 of the Crimes Act which requires anyone with vulnerable individuals in their care:  “to provide (those) person(s) with necessaries; and take reasonable steps to protect (those) person(s) from injury.”

The quality of medical care in New Zealand prisons is so poor that in September 2013, Radio New Zealand revealed that the police are investigating the allegations into Jai Davis’ death and are reviewing the suicide of another prisoner.  Richard Barriball had three different medications taken off him as soon as he was remanded in prison in 2010.  He died after being in prison for less than a week. Three former prison doctors interviewed by RNZ are all calling for an inquiry.

Financial comparisons

A final comparison that needs to be made relates to the amount spent on prison healthcare. Ruth Money calls the $24 million spent on prisoners an ‘obscene amount’. But this is less than 2% of the Department’s annual budget of $1.4 billion.  Compare that with the $14 billion which the government spends on healthcare in the community – out of a tax take of $60 billion a year.   That’s 23%. In other words the government spends 11 times more on healthcare in the community than Corrections spends on the healthcare of prisoners.  There are approximately eight times as many full time doctors per patient in the community as there are doctors per prisoner. Now that is obscene. And the Waikato Times let Bronwyn Donaldson get away with saying Corrections provides an equivalent standard of care.  What standard of journalism is that?