Former California Superior Court judge Peggy Fulton Hora.

Former California Superior Court judge Peggy Fulton Hora. Photo: Supplied

An American justice expert who pioneered therapeutic sentences for drug addicts says she is appalled at the number of repeat drink-driving offenders in Australia.

Former Californian judge Peggy Hora will visit Canberra today to brief the ACT government on alternative sentencing for drug users and the mentally ill.

Ms Hora said yesterday Australia sorely needed drink-driving courts that focused on helping offenders overcome their alcoholism.

''I have never seen so many defendants with prior convictions into the teens as I see in this country,'' she said.

''In 25 years in the US, the most prior convictions I ever saw was six. You have people here regularly with 11, 13, even 19, which is just shocking.''

Ms Hora is renowned for her expertise in ''problem-solving courts'', which hold pre-sentencing hearings that aim to help offenders overcome the reasons they break the law.

While such courts still impose punishments, they emphasise long-term goals, such as sobriety, returning the offenders to work, or improving their mental health, parenting skills or housing.

''These issues are simply not addressed in a regular court, but you must look holistically at offending and its causes,'' Ms Hora said.

''If, when you are sober, all you think about is the time your cousins held you down while they raped you - as had happened to a woman in one of my cases - who wouldn't drink or use drugs in that situation?''

This year, an Australian Institute of Criminology study of police detainees reported that almost half attributed their offending to alcohol or drugs.

The institute also says two in every three detainees test positive to at least one illicit drug.

Ms Hora said America, home of the war on drugs, was beginning to learn that ''instead of being tough on crime, you need to be smart on crime''.

Mandatory sentencing laws in the US have led to harmful overcrowding in jails in several states.

In May this year, the Supreme Court ordered California to release 33,000 prisoners over two years to avoid breaching the inmates' constitutional rights.

During last week's presidential election, Californians subsequently approved a proposition to soften the state's ''three strikes'' criminal laws, which were America's harshest.

Ms Hora said: ''We think the public has caught up with our thinking, though not all politicians have caught up.

''These laws have led to a situation where, at the moment, 2.3 million American citizens are incarcerated, and one out of 133 people are on probation, parole or under some other sort of criminal justice supervision.

''We've done tough on crime - it doesn't make us safer, it costs billions, and recidivism rates are horrific - so we need to use alternatives.''

Ms Hora's public seminar, ''Smart justice: the way forward'', will be held at 1pm today in the Johnson Auditorium at Pilgrim House, Civic.