Giving People Their Lives Back

Al Norman’s work for DCM – our partner charity who support people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness – in the Special Circumstances Court guides people towards the lives they’ve always wanted but didn’t know how to get. 

 

Down in the cells at Wellington’s District Court, Al Norman met a man who was ready to change.

“He had spent some 36 of his 54 years in prison. He’d been going back and forth over that time and had become completely institutionalised,” Al says.

“He was about to go back to jail again for something minor he’d done only because he’d rather be in prison than sleeping rough outside. He was articulate and well read but he was scared of freedom. However, he had health issues and wasn’t getting any younger. He knew he needed to stay out of prison.”

And now he had a chance. After committing a minor crime, the man had been diverted from the mainstream justice system into Wellington’s Special Circumstances Court (SCC), often referred to by those who use and work in it as the “circs court”.

The court was set up in March 2012 to find solutions to the issues that cause many people to come repeatedly into the justice system. Eligible defendants meet strict criteria; their offending is low level and they are homeless, or at risk of homelessness. They will also have some impaired ability to make decisions, perhaps because of trauma, mental health or addiction issues.

They must enter a guilty plea, be committed to change and willing to comply with obligations the circs court judge requires of them. Part of those obligations is to work with social and health services to address their needs.

That’s where Al comes in. The organisation he works for, DCM, is focused on helping end homelessness in the city.

“Housing is a big issue for a lot of people in the circs court,” says Al. “A lot of their offending could be called ‘survival crimes’. They might have shoplifted or been drinking in an alcohol ban area because they’re cold and want to go to sleep.

 

If homelessness is an issue for them, the court’s co-ordinators ask me to come in and talk to them. From there we make a plan, one option being what we at DCM call a ‘ki te hoe’. This means ‘pick up the paddle’, symbolising they’re now committed to working hard to change.

 

Al then works with the person to find accommodation, get them on a benefit, and hook them into DCM’s money management system if they don’t have a bank account. He’ll act as a conduit to help them access any medical or addiction services they need, and to reconnect with whānau and other supports.

“And I’ll see what else they’re interested in – maybe joining a music or art group, taking a course or doing some more study. A lot of what I do is about mentoring, listening. How much I see them depends on their needs, but often they’ll be required to meet with me once a week for as long as they need to.”

The SCC court judge follows the person’s progress at monthly hearings, after a full briefing from everyone involved in the person’s care.

Al’s a fan of the court’s “relaxed formality”. “The hearings are in a proper courtroom, so there’s the formality of being in the justice system. But the judge may talk directly to the defendants, as well as to the lawyers. However the defendant knows they’ll be breached if they don’t comply with the plan agreed upon by the court.

“I like that it’s non-punitive, really positive, and without time constraints. The people can be under the court for months, which is great as you can’t rush some of these things. The work we do is about stopping the revolving door. It’s about recognising that putting these people in prison isn’t working, so we need to try another way.”

There might be stumbles along the way but DCM is there to set them straight. However, the majority of people complete their obligations without reoffending. Having worked in the court since it started, Al estimates DCM has helped about 50 people into a new way of living.

“I’ll see people I haven’t seen for years, maybe pushing a rubbish barrow with a broom, street sweeping. And they’ll say ‘Hey, Al!’ and I’ll say, ‘You got a job!’ And they’re as happy as. A job and a life is all they ever wanted, they just didn’t know how to get there. This court has helped them see there can be a sunny side of life.”

As for the man with 36 years’ prison experience, his past is now his past. DCM quickly got him into accommodation with a whānau environment, strong Māori protocols and gardens to work in.

“Five months on and he’s thriving. I can confidently say – and he’d say it too – that he’d absolutely be back inside if not for the circs court,” says Al.

Written by Lee-Anne from the Community Comms Collective.


 

DCM is not funded for the work it does with the Special Circumstances Court – it must use what it receives from grants and donations. Your 1% could help DCM give more Wellingtonians their lives back.