What Happens When Addicts Are Treated With Dignity by the Court System?

By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie at Twitter @Edie Weinstein1

Drug court. These two words are fraught with trepidation for many whose addictions have brought them into contact with the legal system. It can be a place where people who may already feel demoralized by the drugs that have ravaged their bodies and minds face a potentially demeaning judge who sees them as just another number on the docket. It may also be a room from which they can launch a new life.

It is meant to be far more than punitive, offering addicts an incentive to enter and complete treatment. Drug court falls under the category of therapeutic jurisprudence that is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as “the study of how legal systems affect the emotions, behaviors and the mental health of people.”

The term was coined by Professor David Wexler, of the University of Arizona, Rogers College of Law and University of Puerto Rico School of Law, in a paper delivered to the National Institute of Mental Health in 1987.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals indicates that the “average recidivism rate for drug court graduates is between 4 percent and 29 percent as compared with 48 percent for non-participants.”

It outlines the program:

Eligible drug-addicted persons may be sent to drug court in lieu of traditional justice system case processing. Drug courts keep individuals in treatment long enough for it to work, while supervising them closely. For a minimum term of one year, participants are:

  • Provided with intensive treatment and other services they require to get and stay clean and sober
  • Held accountable by the drug court judge for meeting their obligations to the court, society, themselves and their families
  • Regularly and randomly tested for drug use
  • Required to appear in court frequently so that the judge may review their progress and reward them for doing well or sanction them when they do not live up to their obligation

Compassionate Judges Make a Difference 

Newark, New Jersey, Municipal Court Judge Victoria Pratt sees far more than criminals standing before her each day. She observes people whose poor decisions have landed them in her courtroom. She envisions redemption and renewal for them and engages with them as a partner in creating a brighter future. Pratt is caring, but also “no nonsense” in her approach to justice. She interacts with them in ways that demonstrate interest in their lives, as she encourages responsible parenting, re-establishing relationships and claiming, perhaps for the first time, the personal dignity that is foundational in sustaining sobriety.

“This court is going to treat you with dignity and respect, and we expect you to treat us the same way,” she tells defendants. “If you show up late or don’t show up at all, you will serve a jail sentence.”

Most show up and follow through on her mandates that address the particular crimes they have committed.

Pratt often gives a writing assignment, asking them to pen an essay that describes where they see themselves in five years, highlighting the scenarios as if they are playing out in the present moment. She then has them read the essay before her — in part because deciphering another’s handwriting can be a challenge. She also finds that by expressing their story aloud, the person gains a sense of empowerment. The benefits of such an exercise are multifold:

  • It aids the writer in envisioning a life beyond crime and addiction, since often that seems inconceivable.
  • It solidifies the images in their mind by putting them in writing, thus making them attainable.
  • It engages inspired action to see the ideas come to fruition.
  • It holds the person accountable for follow through, since his or her declaration is being witnessed by a room full of people.
  • It offers support, so the person may feel that they need not do this alone.
  • It gives them structure and focus.
  • It helps them to regain activities that they may have left behind prior to addiction.
  • It allows for imagining the steps that it might take to traverse the path from where they are to where they want to be.
  • It endeavors to break the steps down into manageable activities.
  • It provides a milestone to celebrate when they achieve it. 

Throwing the Book at Courtroom Defendants

In Baltimore area courts, judges are taking the opportunity to hand out reading assignments while they simultaneously hand down verdicts. Judge Lewis A. Becker has those who present themselves before him with charges related to alcohol read Under the Influence as a means of highlighting the dangers of driving impaired. The next step is writing a 1,500 word essay describing the insights they gleaned from it. Those with heroin addiction are instructed by Judge James N. Vaughan to read The Corner, and to those who have stolen, the classic Les Miserables.

While it may not be the final word, by treating with compassion and dignity those whose addictions have led them to stand before the black-robed authority figure, the chances of a return visit are diminished and the opportunities to recover are enhanced.

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