When negative is positive

Acting Senior Practitioner Liz O’Driscoll conducts a home visit with an offender with an abstinence condition. A legislative change means in May this year Corrections started a two-year trial of alcohol and drug testing of offenders (and defendants on bail) in the community.

Along with Police, we’re trialling different types of testing – including random urine testing, ‘reasonable grounds’ urine testing, and alcohol detection anklets – across the Northern Region.

Following the trial, an evaluation will determine the most effective testing technologies and testing frequencies to inform a national roll-out.

Corrections Works talks to Acting Senior Practitioner Liz O’Driscoll at Otara Community Corrections where testing has been in place since 16 May.

How’s the trial going in Otara?

Really well! Now we can act on our suspicions, get a person tested, and help stop harm occurring.

I had a gentleman on my caseload who I suspected was using methamphetamine. When I told him he could now be tested he was very anxious because he has a family he cares about. He started engaging with treatment and got a job. It definitely had a positive effect on him.

Not all offenders can be tested, can they?

Only offenders or defendants on bail who are given an abstinence condition by a court or the Parole Board can be tested. Probation officers (POs) recommend abstinence conditions when there’s a good reason why that person shouldn’t drink or take drugs, usually because it’s related to their offending.

How many offenders on your caseload have an abstinence condition?

Acting Senior Practitioner Liz O’Driscoll discusses the trial of alcohol and drug testing of offenders with a colleague. On my caseload, there’s 14 out of 30. I have more than most because I work with a lot of recently released prisoners. Leaving prison is a high risk time because it’s stressful and people often have to deal with old associates who may encourage them to drink and take drugs.

What happens when someone tests positive?

We make decisions based on risk, so it depends. For example, we had a low-risk offender fail his first test due to cannabis. We sent him a warning letter, referred him to treatment, and he’s cleaned up his act. Coming down heavy on him is likely to have been counterproductive. On the other hand, I had an offender return a positive for meth, which was related to his offending (he’d been a dealer). He was recalled to prison and is still inside.

What support is available for offenders?

POs have supportive conversations with offenders, we refer them to treatment programmes, and there’s also the RecoveRing helpline (offenders can call 24/7 to speak to a counsellor). We also help in other ways. For example, one offender on my caseload had an old associate who kept trying to get him to drink. I issued a non-association order so the offender had a good excuse for avoiding that guy. That’s helped him stay sober.

Testing at two initial trial sites (Otara Community Corrections, and Manurewa Community Corrections) started on 16 May.

Testing across the Northern Region started on 1 September.

Alcohol detection anklets

For offenders with an abstinence condition for alcohol and a high risk of causing alcohol-related harm, an alcohol detection anklet may be a useful monitoring tool. Corrections and Police are using these anklets in the Northern Region as part of the trial.

Testing in the rest of the country?

The two-year trial of testing methods and frequencies is in the Corrections Northern Region only. However, high risk offenders with abstinence conditions across the rest of the country can be sent for urine or breath testing at the discretion of the relevant district manager. Alcohol detection anklets are only available as part of the two-year Northern Region trial.