Justice Ema Aitken, the woman who played a pivotal role in the establishment of Samoa’s Drugs and Alcohol Court, is optimistic. During an interview with the Sunday Samoan, Justice Aitken hopes the Court will encourage conversations around alcohol and drugs and help drugs and alcohol abusers in Samoa to become more responsible for their actions.
“I think there is a real lack of knowledge around how much people are drinking and a lot of offenders don’t know the impact of what they are drinking,” she said.
“People don’t realize that if they drink throughout the night steadily and have four hours of sleep, they will still be drunk when they go to work.”
Launched on 12 February 2016 with its first sitting on 16 February 2016, the Drugs and Alcohol Court recognises the need to deal with alcohol and drug abuse in Samoa.
A study carried out by the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration focused on serious crimes like murder, manslaughter and grievous bodily harm. The research found that in 2012, about 44 per cent of the offenses were committed under the influence of alcohol.
In 2013, that number climbed to 51per cent. It spiked in 2014 when it hit 72 per cent. From those statistics, Justice Aitken said there is an urgent need to change behaviour and attitudes about alcohol and drugs in Samoa.
“What the Drugs and Alcohol Court does is it says look we can punish people for the consequences of their behaviour and there is a place of time in prison and there is a place for stern sentencing to hold people to account,” she said.
“But there is very little research done that I am aware of that prison changes behaviour in positive way.
“What is likely to happen is when you contain a group of offenders together in same place, unless you are able to deliver comprehensive rehab programmes, there is a good chance they will come out with worse behaviour.”
Justice Aitken pointed out that the time in prison removes them from their families, church and community, the very social structure, which normally has a positive influence on lives.
The Drugs and Alcohol Court will give people the chance to address the cause of their behaviours.
“This is because we believe if people can successfully address causes of criminal behaviour, there is good chance that the public will be safer and it will reduce the chance of them reoffending,” she said.
The Drugs and Alcohol Court in Samoa is based on a United States model that is also adopted by New Zealand.
Justice Aitken with another judiciary colleague had setup the N.Z Adult and Drug Alcohol Court, which has now been running for three years.
According to her, the model works.
The issue for Samoa and the Court is that the country has yet to have the benefit of alcohol and drug testing.
Justice Aitken said this is something the Ministry of Justice and Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa are working on.
Once that is done, the offenders will be tested on a regular basis for drugs and alcohol as no one is allowed to be under the influence once they are in the Court.
The difference between the Court to that of in New Zealand is the local one is developed by Samoans for Samoans.
“It’s a court that utilizes very strong social structure,” said Justice Aitken.
That provides for a community justice supervisor which could be a village mayor or a pastor.
So far, a pilot programme has started covering villages from Afega to Lauli’i to the hills of Vailima. Justice Aitken said they have visited these villages and have nominated a community justice supervisor, who are then given training.
“They will be the eyes and hears of the court in the village,” she explained.
She added that every offender that comes into the Court would undergo a family group conference where the family of the offender are reached out to as well as the village.
“What we know here as judges is that no matter how hard we try with court system, as what the Chief Justice often says, we can’t solve the problem.
“Alcohol and drug abuse is a social problem and we want to say that all of us should drink responsibly…your drinking is none of my business until you step over the line and commit an offense.”
Part of the programme is an education interventional programme.
This educates offenders about the impact of alcohol and drugs and what it does to their livers, health, memory and family among other things.
“What we find is many offenders didn’t know just how harmful alcohol is,” she said.
“I learned that a large bottle of Vailima is equivalent to four standard drinks. I think there is a real lack of knowledge around how much people are drinking and a lot of offenders don’t know the impact of what they are drinking.
“People don’t realize that if they drink throughout the night steadily and have four hours of sleep, they will still be drunk when they go to work.
“I suspect employers lose significant amount of hours, being tired not being able to concentrate.”
Justice Aitken added that the abuse is not confined to the Court. It also impacts on the heath and family systems.
“There would be a lot of children who dread Thursday and Friday nights because dad is going to come home drunk and they know he’s going to be angry and things will be smashed,” she said.
“Or mum might even come home drunk and take it out on the property or children and this is caused because of the significant cause lack of awareness around what is safe drinking.
“The Court hopes to start a conversation in villages and families perhaps to look at consumption of alcohol and how to drink safely.
“I can see in their eyes the guilt and regrets when they know it’s going to be a long time in prison. I can see shame when they assault family members, which is the case in Samoa.
“So much offending happens in the village and family. Every time I do it (sentence them) it takes a little part of me too.”
Justice admitted she does not enjoy sending people to prison.
“I don’t know any judge that does but it strikes me so often that it’s a waste of human life and this Court has so much potential to change the conversation around alcohol, to get adults to step up and drink responsibly because children will mirror their parents behaviour.”
Justice Aitken has completed her term in Samoa. She is returning to New Zealand with her husband, Dr. David Galler, who was doing voluntary work at the Intensive Care Unit of the Moto’otua hospital.