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‘It saved my life’ – inside the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court

5 Jul 2024

| Author: Michael Andrew

In 2018, Benjamin McPadden was sitting in the AODTC, high on methamphetamine, when Judge Lisa Tremewan asked him a question that took him by surprise: “how are you today?”

A recidivist offender and drug addict, McPadden was no stranger to the court system. He’d first been arrested as a troubled youth at age 14 and had spent the next two decades embroiled in a seemingly endless series of drug offences, electronic monitoring and prison stints. This was the first time anyone in a courtroom had asked him that question.

“It was very overwhelming,” McPadden says. “I’ve been in so many courts where you stand in the dock and the lawyer, the judge and the prosecutor talk about you and no one ever talks to you. You’re just a number. But in this court there were all these happy, smiling people. And Judge Tremewan sat at my level and talked to me like I was a human.”

McPadden replied to the judge honestly – he was not good, his life was in tatters, he couldn’t get through a day without getting high. In fact, he’d gotten high on meth in his car that afternoon and his initial participation in the AODTC was just a ruse to delay prison and continue using for a few more days. What he didn’t realise at the time, however, was that his appearance in front of Judge Tremewan marked the beginning of the end for his addiction – and the day his life began to turn around.

McPadden now works for Odyssey, the AODTC’s community services arm, acting as an advisor to addicts who are in the same position he was, sitting in that courtroom. With a burgeoning career, a loving family, and four years of sobriety under his belt, McPadden says he owes everything to the court. But his journey through the AODTC was not straightforward. It seldom is for offenders. When advising those going through the court, he often sees the same traits he once had: the addictions, the cynicism, the attempts to manipulate the system. But, he says, the court can’t be tricked and even the most defiant people eventually either yield to its influence or exit altogether.

Started in 2012 as a pilot to divert high-risk offenders from prison, the AODTC works through a comprehensive framework that imposes strict requirements on participants. To be accepted, they must plead guilty and be facing a likely prison term of up to three years for drug offences. They then must commit to a rigorous 12- to 18-month program of regular testing, in-court ceremonies, Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings – three per week – and counselling sessions.

But McPadden says the key feature of the AODTC is the intensive wrap-around support that is designed to encourage participants when they’re doing well and hold them accountable when they slip up – which addicts are prone to do.

“There’s this perfect mix between positive reinforcement and swift accountability,” McPadden says. “They praise your achievements but on the other hand they hold you accountable every step of the way.

“My whole fantasy of being able to use drugs while I was going through the court was shut down very quickly. Drug testing is the backbone of the court and Judge Tremewan was not afraid to put me in custody to reflect whenever I slipped up – which happened three times. I’m grateful for that now, but I wasn’t at the time.

Crippled with severe life-long anxiety, McPadden says his former drug use had become his only way to function. When he first arrived in court, his addiction was so severe that he couldn’t go half a day sober without becoming catatonic – or what he refers to as “on the nod”. It wasn’t until Judge Tremewan remanded him in custody a third time that the benefits of sobriety began to outweigh the throes of addiction.

“I couldn’t believe I was back in custody. I felt very sorry for myself, even though it was my actions that got me there. But because I was going through the court, I had support through audio-visual links the whole time. Other prisoners are lucky to get one phone call to their lawyer. But I could talk to my case manager and my support team.

“I told them that no matter what, I was never coming back here again. That was the last time I ever used, but it wasn’t easy. I was depressed for almost a year because my blanket – methamphetamine – had been ripped away from me and it takes a while to get warm again.”


Childhood wounds

Because the purpose of the court is to provide an alternative to imprisonment for high-risk drug users, many people who are accepted have walked long paths of hardship and reoffending, encountering numerous dead ends and exhausting all other options for rehabilitation.

James Sturch was accepted into the AODTC in 2022 following 10 years behind bars for various drug and burglary offences. He says much of his addiction stems from his childhood, suffering at the hands of a violent alcoholic father. In the family home, his older sister used to line up glass bottles in the hallway so she could hear if anyone was coming, buying time to protect her younger siblings.

Despite harbouring a deep resentment for his father and a desire to not be like him, James developed the same addictive patterns early in his life, only the substance was different.  “The only value I got taught in life was that if you’re having a good time, you drink. If you have a bad time, you drink. But I didn’t want to end up like my father, so I didn’t pick up alcohol. Instead, I picked up methamphetamine.”

By the time he was 19, Sturch’s addiction began to escalate and his sisters – then based in the UK – flew him to Spain to have a break and spend his 20th birthday with them. He returned to New Zealand with the intention of saving up money to move to the UK permanently, but he quickly fell back into using. A year later, he was sentenced to 18 months in Mt Eden prison.

“It was a bit of a shift, having my 20th birthday in Spain and my 21st in Mt Eden Prison. It was a whole new world to me, but I quickly established a network of criminals in there who I came to see as my brothers. It was the sort of connection I’d been craving my whole life. But it just meant that drugs were far easier to access once I got out.”

For the next 15 years, Sturch spiralled deeper into a cycle of drug use and supply, imprisonment and release. Each time he ended up in prison, he played the game he knew he had to play – doing the DTUs (Drug Treatment Units) and other in-prison programs in order to “manipulate” the parole board into letting him out and continue selling and using drugs.

The crimes became more serious, the associates more nefarious and the prison sentences longer. It wasn’t until he fell into a relationship with a woman who was on a similar path as him that the gravity of his patterns began to sink in. “She fell pregnant with my son. It was the first time in my life I’ve really thought about my own upbringing and how much I don’t want to end up having a relationship with my son like my dad had with me.”

“I thought that I’d love my son so much when he was born that I’ll be able to stop and never use again. But of course, once he was born I just viewed it as an excuse to keep using. Within six months, I was back in prison doing a four-year, eight-month sentence. My son’s mother also went to prison for two years and our six-month-old son was left in the care of her mum. I didn’t see him for four years.”

Sturch went through the cycle again: doing the in-prison treatment programs and ticking the boxes to get released. But when he got out, he made his first meaningful attempt to break the cycle of addiction and reached out to drug rehabilitation trust Higher Ground. He went through counselling, healed his relationship with his son, went to university and stayed clean for a year and a half. He met a new partner and they had a baby girl together.

But drug addiction is insidious and a moment of naivety involving a single beer at a bar was enough to send Sturch plummeting back into serious drug use and eventually prison. “I had convinced myself that I wasn’t like my father, that I had done the work and I could safely have a casual beer. But I opened up the old door. It wasn’t long before I was back on meth and my life completely fell apart. I became abusive to my partner. I lost everything. The police seized my bank accounts. I had no money and my partner left me.

“I was back in prison thinking ‘how the hell did I get myself back into this?’ I had worked so hard not to be this person again. And that’s when I realised I needed more help. I knew I was never going to find it through the prison treatment programs. As soon as you show vulnerability in their drug treatment units, you become a victim and targeted by other prisoners. You have to be tough, you have to put a mask on. It’s not a place to heal. “That’s when I came to the drug court.”


The point of difference

James Sturch now works alongside Ben McPadden at the AODTC’s community services arm, having entered the court in 2022 and graduating clean and sober 11 months ago. Like McPadden, he’s unequivocal in his regard for the court and its singular role in turning his life around.

“I went there with nothing. Now, my partner and I have a lovely home, I have amazing family relationships and we’ve just been blessed with a beautiful baby girl. I have a good job where I can help other people. I honestly couldn’t be in a better position in my life. I’m just so grateful for where I’m at and I definitely put it all down to the drug court.”

Having completed countless rehabilitation programs in the past to little effect, Sturch sees many points of difference that allow the AODTC to successfully break the cycle of drug use and reoffending. There’s the constant support and accountability, the integration of mistakes into the framework of recovery, the use of tikanga and the intensive rehabilitation schedule. But what sticks out to him most is the court’s way of involving family members.

“The drug court didn’t just do wrap-around support with me – they did wrap-around support with my family as well, allowing me to heal those relationships. Every graduation you see family members in tears. They stand up and they say how much the person has changed. And my family were the same, they were crying, just thanking the drug court for the support that they’ve given.”

Although every graduate gets something different out of the court, Sturch says he profited from the opportunity he was given to be authentic, vulnerable and open – all those things that can’t be done in prison. Only by having a safe space to truly explore his past was he able to begin healing the trauma that had driven his lifelong addiction.


Roll out

The AODTC is currently running in Auckland and Hamilton, but there are calls to roll it out nationwide, replicating extensive drug court systems in other countries. The United States, for example, has 3000 specialist drug courts and in Texas prisons are closing because these courts are so successful.

Based on his experiences going through the court as an offender and working for it as an employee, McPadden fully supports a national rollout of the drug court.

“This is something I believe in so strongly,” he says. “I think it’s a real shame that there aren’t drug courts everywhere, or at least some of the philosophies. Even implementing mandatory AA or NA meetings for those on bail for drug offences would be a huge step. There needs to be something that forces you to be connected and reduces alienation.”

As for Sturch, he knows there are many addicts out there like him, imprisoned in environments that perpetuate addiction cycles, rather than break them. If the AODTC worked for him when nothing else would, it’s bound to work for others. “If it weren’t for the drug court, I’d be in prison for the rest of my life – or dead. It saved my life.” ■

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