A look inside NZ's experimental Drug Courts

Newshub has gained special access to New Zealand's Drug Courts.

The unique model replaces jail time with rehabilitation. Of the 450 offenders who were put through the programme, 180 have graduated - that's a 40 percent pass rate.

Of those who graduated, around 60 percent of them have not reoffended so far.

With 10,000 people currently incarcerated in New Zealand, many experts wonder if the Drug Courts could be the answer to reducing our prison rates.

But seven years after trials began in Auckland and Waitakere, expansion has stalled despite support from both National and Labour.

It's a different kind of court, one where the judge is encouraging and sometimes even jokes with the offenders.

"I hope you'll feel proud of yourself today," District Court Judge Ema Aitken told one person.

She started the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts partly out of frustration.

"You find yourself thinking, 'Is this my life?'" she says. "Am I going to spend the rest of my time as judge sentencing people to prison over and over again?

"Surely there is a better way of doing that."

Eligible offenders in the Drug Court are called participants. They're facing a jail term of less than three years, and their crimes are fuelled by their addiction.

To avoid jail, they have to pass frequent drug tests, and complete one to two years of rehabilitation, counselling and community work. Serious violent offenders cannot take part.

Two-thirds of all inmates have substance problems.

"If we want to break this cycle, this generational cycle of offending and imprisonment, we have to start somewhere," says Judge Aitken.

She believes targeting the addiction of repeat offenders benefits us all.

"What is the cost of doing nothing?. The cost of doing nothing is imprisonment costs, is intergenerational incarceration, and it's also the loss of these people from our community."

The Drug Courts began under National as a five-year pilot. While beneficial, they are expensive - and so, seven years on, there's still no permanent funding. Without it, the courts can't expand outside Auckland.

Justice Minister Andrew Little says he's waiting on a report outlining the costs and concrete proof drug courts stop people reoffending.

"This court is showing a new way," he told Newshub. "What I've seen looks pretty good to me, but in the world of Government you've got to look at all the evidence and have some good information to make long-term decisions."

Judge Aitken says we already have that information.

"We know it works for many people; we know we need to do something with this high-risk, high-needs group; we know there's nothing else out there that we are doing. Let's make what we know works, work even better."

Retired US Superior Court Judge Peggy Hora had a message for the Minister at a Drug Court conference in Auckland this week.

"The Minister of Justice said in December that we're going to roll out to the whole country, so I'm saying 'let's roll'."

But expanding Drug Courts around the country won't be easy. Existing drug treatment facilities are already full, with waiting lists months-long.

Many regions have no drug clinics and specialists are limited. However that's not deterring Hamilton - the city has already put its hand up.


Contact Newshub with your story tips: