Monday, February 05, 2007

Most jurists not equipped to handle addiction, but they should be, says recovery court judge

Folks interested in the day-to-day workings of drug/recovery courts and how judges should approach their job when dealing with addicts should be sure to read Montgomery County District Judge Michael Mayes' article in the most recent issue of In Chambers (p. 4), a publication of the Texas Center for the Judiciary. For starters, I think everyone would be better off if Texas judges up and down the line were taught the humbling lesson that Mayes describes early in the article:
I have ... learned that, as a rule, we Judges have little or no training in the realities of addiction or alcoholism, and yet we are called upon to deal with persons who suffer from such maladies and to decide whether to punish these abusers with prison or try to rehabilitate them through probation. We have little or no background to know the answers to the real issues of addiction but we are empowered to sentence addicts and alcoholics who violate the law. We are robed, no doubt, because others saw in us something special, something that generated hope in the justice system, but we are not educated for the task of handling alcohol and drug abuse.
That's certainly true. Law school barely teaches you what to do in a courtroom, much less how to curb addiction and addictive behavior. Many judges aren't humble enough to admit that they frankly aren't qualified to reform addicts, and thus their decisions don't assist toward that goal. There is indeed a body of knowledge and literature on the subject, and experts exist, Mayes learned, but it's important first to recognize that that's not the pool of people from whom society draws to make the life-changing decisions a judge is empowered to make. Mayes described his own self-education process and recommends a number of resources and methods he relies on.

Equally interesting was Mayes' observation that, once he'd studied and better understood patterns of addictive thinking, he realized the judicial system itself was engaged in precisely the same pathology regarding these offenders. He wrote:
Our judicial system has for years engaged in addictive thinking when dealing with drug offenders. We continue to employ a failed protocol of arrest, probation, violation and ultimately prison because it is easier than the harder work of providing real solutions. It is what has become normal and it makes us feel like we are doing our job, but the fact remains that repeating past errors and expecting different results is symptomatic of addictive thinking. This thinking is a distorted way to address the pandemic of addiction we see in the courts. It provides little or no treatment for the addict, the alcoholic and their families and it provides no preventative solutions for the future victims of those addicts that abuse and injure others. Not finding real solutions is easier than addressing the real issues underlying the addicted defendant’s behavior.
That's as apt a description of why Texas prisons are full of drug offenders as you'll ever read. But Judge Mayes offers a flicker of hope that it doesn't have to be that way. Today he operates three different "recovery courts" in Montgomery County (which is a suburban/rural county outside Houston) and he describes an amazing success rate for those who receive jail time and treatment instead of probation revocation in response to violating probation requirements:
In my experience, less than 10% of inmates that I have jailed for a relapse and with whom we have engaged with therapeutic interventions while in jail ever face a Motion to Revoke. Those that have been revoked were (1) addicts that refused to accept the reality of their addictive thinking, (2) defendants that had absconded and could not convince me that they would not stop running from their distorted thinking, or (3) defendants that stated that probation in our Recovery Courts was "too hard and I had rather just do the time." These failures are few and far between, however, and when in doubt I invariably lean toward treatment and recovery.
Good stuff. I'm glad to see these ideas being kicked around among Texas' judicial set. Maybe those on the bench who agree with Judge Mayes will speak out to support the legislative reforms needed to make this changed approach a statewide reality.

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