Programme aims to rehabilitate driving offenders

The Right Track co-founders John (left) and Helen Finch with programme facilitator Brenton...
The Right Track co-founders John (left) and Helen Finch with programme facilitator Brenton Harrison at a risk management session last year. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
A "confronting" course aimed at changing the behaviour of young or recidivist driving offenders will run as a trial in Queenstown later this year. Public Interest Journalism Fund reporter Guy Williams speaks to The Right Track programme’s founder and asks why emergency services and the judiciary are so keen to make it available to offenders in Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago.

The Right Track programme is no picnic, founder John Finch says.

Since its launch in Counties-Manukau 15 years ago, thousands of driving offenders in Auckland region, Waikato, Canterbury, Otago and Southland have been brought face-to-face with the potentially devastating consequences of their actions, and given the opportunity to learn how to make better decisions behind the wheel.

The programme usually involves about 15 participants, each with a support person, attending nine sessions over six weeks.

"It’s confronting, it’s brutally honest from the first moment until the graduation speeches," Mr Finch said.

They meet parents who have lost a child in a fatal crash, and hear police officers and firefighters talk about the trauma of attending crash scenes and how it affects their day-to-day lives.

Participants are a mix of young people, adults and recidivist offenders who have been referred to the programme by a judge or community magistrate as part of their sentencing.

They are presented with "raw, honest, confronting information that people run away from", he said.

"If people knew this stuff, we would have a zero road toll."

Since 2010, police evaluations of the programme’s effectiveness had shown a dramatic reduction in reoffending by participants in the two years after completion.

"We’ve never been below 75% in non-reoffending rates."

In Dunedin and Invercargill, where it had been running for three and four years respectively, the success rate was even higher, he said.

Now work was under way to establish The Right Track in Queenstown, with a trial programme starting in November.

The Right Track founder John Finch. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The Right Track founder John Finch. PHOTO: ODT FILES

Mr Finch said he had been receiving inquiries from Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago residents for years, and knew judges wanted to see it operating in the region.

That was clear to the Otago Daily Times in the Alexandra District Court in May, when community magistrate Simon Heale broke from the formality of court process and told the lawyers, justice and corrections staff present how keen he was to see The Right Track filling a gap for the driving offenders sentenced in Alexandra and Queenstown’s courts.

Mr Finch said The Right Track gave judges and community magistrates an alternative option for sentencing, particularly for recidivist offenders for whom prison was the next step.

"You can lock them up with a bunch of criminals . . . or work with them to change their behaviour and the behaviour of their peers, their whanau and other people they come in contact with."

Judges took part in The Right Track programmes across the country, he said.

"They see it as a key part of their toolkit to enable people to make change, especially the young ones."

Although attending the programme might keep an offender out of prison, they would still lose their licence and be subject to other punitive elements of their sentence, he said.

A key aspect of the programme was the need for every participant to bring a supporter, such a parent or partner, to every session.

That allowed them to compare notes about what they had heard, sparked important conversations outside the sessions, and often helped mend relationships that had been strained by the offending.

"Because you’ve got someone who’s genuinely interested in what you’re learning, it’s easier for you to keep learning and keep practising.

"That creates the longevity of the change."

It often led to the support person changing their own negative behaviours.

"We run the programme for the offender, but their whole immediate environment is changed."

Otago Lakes Central area acting road policing manager Sergeant Bruce Martin. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Otago Lakes Central area acting road policing manager Sergeant Bruce Martin. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The Queenstown Lakes District Council is helping to fund and set up the pilot programme in the resort town, in partnership with the governance entity behind it, the Eduk8 Charitable Trust.

Council road safety officer Sarah Thomson said The Right Track had produced great results wherever it had been run.

"It changes lives. We want to see how it goes, and then look to secure some funding to hopefully continue delivering it," she said.

As well as finding a venue and securing more funding, emergency services staff and volunteers were being recruited to help run it, Ms Thomson said.

Otago Lakes Central Area acting road policing manager Sergeant Bruce Martin said The Right Track took a proactive approach to offenders who, without some kind of intervention, were on a pathway to prison.

"It’s making them confront their demons and come to the realisation their behaviour is not only self-destructive, but effects everybody, including their own families."

Sgt Martin said details of the pilot programme were still being worked on, but he expected local officers would be involved in every session.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand group manager Rodger Smith said it was working closely with the council, the police and St John to bring its expertise to the programme.

"The Right Track is a very good initiative ... we’re happy to be involved in activities that support road safety in New Zealand."



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