Qualitative evaluation of the alcohol and other drug testing in the community trial
Principal Research Adviser, Department of Corrections
Jill joined the Department of Corrections’ Research and Analysis Team in 2010. She manages a variety of research and evaluation projects and has a particular interest in the outcomes of released prisoners, issues relating to alcohol and drugs, particularly methamphetamine, and the needs of female offenders.
In November 2016, government passed the Drug and Alcohol Testing of Community Based Offenders, Bailees and Other Persons Bill 2016. The Act enables the Department of Corrections and Police to require people on community-based sentences and bailees who have conditions prohibiting the use of drugs and alcohol, to undergo drug and alcohol testing to ensure they are complying with these obligations.
The Department developed a regime for testing people on community sentences and trialled this for 24 months in its Northern Region.
In 2017, the Department contracted Malatest International to conduct a qualitative evaluation of the trial.
The aim of the evaluation was to determine the effectiveness of the trial in achieving its intended outcomes – reduced alcohol or drug use, improved compliance with sentence conditions, improved engagement with rehabilitation services, and reduced harm caused by alcohol and other drug misuse through a change in the rate of offending. In addition, the evaluation was intended to determine the type of testing approach and frequency of testing that had the greatest impact on the outcomes. If the testing regime was found to be successful, the intention of the Department was to implement it nationally. The evaluation was conducted during 2017/2018.
The evaluation comprised interviews with people involved in the trial.
Fifty-four people subject to the testing regime were interviewed, along with 21 probation officers, nine Community Corrections managers and five testing staff and alcohol detection anklet installers. Interviews were undertaken in six Community Corrections sites across Auckland (Mount Eden and Waitakere), Counties Manukau (Manurewa and Otara) and Northland (Whangarei and Kaikohe). Sites were selected to include urban and rural sites where testing was fully implemented. Most interviews were completed in February and March 2018.
Findings from the evaluation
The evaluation found that, overall, the alcohol and drug testing regime was working well.
Probation officers and community corrections managers were generally positive about the testing regime. Prior to the Corrections testing regime, staff could request the police to breath test if they believed someone was breaching their condition not to drink alcohol. However, staff reported having been reluctant to do this unless an individual had presented as clearly intoxicated at report-ins, or there was other unambiguous evidence of alcohol use, such as during a home visit. Random testing allowed them to monitor abstinence conditions without the need for evidence of non-compliance. As a result, probation officers were confident that the testing could increase compliance and lead to reduced rates of re-offending. The involvement of a coordination team ensured the regime had minimal impact on probation officers’ workloads, unless they had high numbers of people selected for testing at the same time.
Probation officers believed the testing regime had strengthened their ability to achieve the objectives of their work with the people they are managing. For example, testing enables them to more meaningfully discuss alcohol and drug use and some noted that proof of abstinence increased the trust between probation officer and offender.
Probation officers supported the testing being random, as this removed responsibility for ordering the tests from them, and the suggestion that the officer was “picking on” certain people. Actively requesting tests had in the past, it was reported, impacted negatively on the relationship between probation officer and the person they were managing. However, because random testing meant that some offenders might avoid being selected, some probation officers suggested introducing a safety net to ensure that everyone was tested at some point.
While probation officers generally preferred tests to be random, they wanted control over the timing of a follow-up test after a positive result. Some wanted to allow reasonable time for people to engage with rehabilitation or to change their behaviour, while others wanted a retest to occur quite quickly to ensure that offenders had ceased their drug or alcohol use. They could control the timing of the retesting by requesting a reasonable grounds test.
Probation officers identified a number of areas where further training would be useful. One of these was interpreting positive test results. While results included the level of each substance detected, probation officers were not sure what they indicated about the level and recency of substance use. This knowledge would influence how they responded to positive results. For example, they said they would be more likely to give immediate breaches if they knew the consumption was recent and represented heavy use. Other areas on which they would like further information included: how long different drugs remained in a person’s system; under what circumstances (apart from obvious intoxication) a reasonable grounds test would be warranted – in particular, when information from a third party could be used and how this would stand up in court; and how much notice they should give offenders about forthcoming tests – some felt the time allowed under the policy (24-48 hours) could be insufficient for offenders to arrange time off with employers, organise transport, or find childcare but, on the other hand, they did not want to allow time for drugs to clear offenders’ systems.
Probation officers generally felt the calculator assigned people to the correct tier. If they overrode the tier allocation, it was usually to move offenders to a higher tier to recognise the offender’s risk of re-offending or the severity of the consequences of re-offending.
Probation officers reported that most offenders accepted their testing obligations as part of their sentence because they were accustomed to being tested for alcohol and drugs while in prison and as part of their employment conditions. Probation officers explained the testing requirements during inductions, but some offenders maintained they had not been briefed. Of particular concern for those who claimed to be unaware of the possibility of being tested was the requirement for their urination to be observed. However, when offenders knew what to expect they were less concerned about the testing.
Probation officers and managers believed there were some circumstances where the observed urine stream approach was inappropriate – for example, for people who had been sexually abused. For these situations, they raised the possibility of using other testing approaches – for example, blood, hair follicle and mouth swab testing.
There were genuine reasons why some people did not attend their scheduled tests – often related to transport or employment. For example, it could be difficult to get to some test sites by public transport and the distance from work could require people to take a day’s leave – both situations resulting in significant cost and inconvenience to the person being tested. Mobile testing vans at Community Corrections sites removed many of these barriers (although there were also issues around lack of privacy while waiting to be tested in a mobile van). Probation officers were confident they could distinguish between non-compliance due to genuine barriers and avoidance of testing. They treated repeated non-attendance as indicative of a likely positive result, and said they took appropriate action with offenders.
Probation officers’ responses to positive test results varied. However, as the legislation intended, all considered the risk the offenders’ substance use posed to the community and to offenders themselves in making decisions about responses. Some probation officers breached all offenders who returned a positive result, believing it was the responsibility of the courts to decide what action to take. However, others preferred to offer a rehabilitative rather than punitive response, believing such assistance would result in better longer term outcomes for offenders. Probation officers adopting the latter approach reported observing positive changes in behaviour from offenders. Expecting to be returned to prison for a failed result or to receive some other sanction, offenders often became motivated to attend the proposed rehabilitation programme when given this opportunity.
Some probation officers thought the risk of random testing would not be a sufficient incentive for people to cease alcohol and drug use and this would only happen after they failed a test.
Impacts on people serving community sentences who were subject to the testing regime
From the perspective of people serving community sentences in the pilot region, initial resistance to the introduction of random resting had reduced over time. To start with, some felt they were being unfairly targeted, despite the fact that they had been given an abstinence condition by a court or the parole board. Those whose offending was not drug-related sometimes felt that the testing was an unnecessary imposition on them. However, once the testing had become more normalised, they accepted it as a condition of their sentence. According to some offenders interviewed, the testing regime had encouraged them to reduce or cease their alcohol or drug use. However, some maintained they had decided to cease use regardless of testing; others continued to use, hoping they wouldn’t be tested, or not caring about the risks of failing a test.
Those who had reduced or ceased use generally said they did not like their conditions but adhered to them anyway. Some continued to drink alcohol only on special occasions. Others continued to use marijuana, for example, “to manage anxiety” and, because they were “using it to relax in a safe environment”, they felt it would help them to avoid re-offending.
In addition to the obvious benefits of a negative test, offenders were also able to use the results to demonstrate their abstinence to employers, programme facilitators and Oranga Tamariki.
Overall, Corrections staff were positive about the introduction of alcohol and drug testing for people serving community-based sentences with abstinence conditions. The testing enabled staff to more closely monitor offenders’ drug and alcohol conditions, which they had been unable to do effectively in the past. They believed the testing would result in reduced alcohol and drug consumption for some offenders, resulting in a reduction in re-offending.
Although some people subject to the regime had genuine barriers to attending tests, they were generally accepting of the requirements.
Lewis, N. (2018) Alcohol and other drug testing trial of community-based offenders. Practice, the New Zealand Corrections Journal, Vol 6, Issue 1, 37-41. Department of Corrections