Legal Issues Faced by Addicts: How Can We Help?

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Legal issues are a common problem facing many of those who suffer from addiction. (Alamy)
Legal issues are a common problem facing many of those who suffer from addiction. (Alamy)

In our recent article regarding the tragic life of Amy Winehouse, we chronicled the story of her substance abuse during every year between 2005 and her death due to alcohol poisoning in 2011. Aside from the outline of her struggles with substance dependency itself, one other glaring pattern emerged from this story. Namely, the fact that most of the years she spent in active addiction were plagued with a series of legal issues.

Unfortunately, this pattern is far from unique. Many addicts and alcoholics find themselves facing minor (or even major) legal issues at one point or another. The problem is so tangible that we even mentioned it in our list of signs and symptoms of substance dependency. The even more tragic aspect of this trend is that many addicts and alcoholics will not see incarceration or other forms of legal punishment as deterrents to their behavior.

That is why we’d like to explore some of these statistics, so that you may gain some insight into the legal issues facing many substance abusers, as well as some of the reasons that said legal issues often persist long after they have been penalized by the justice system. More importantly, we’d like to explore some of the legal rights of recovering addicts and alcoholics, as well as how Amethyst Recovery can help recovering substance dependents to receive the fair treatment they deserve.

The Cycle of Addiction and Legal Issues

Even a simple DUI can spiral into a recurring problem if the addict or alcoholic does not recognize the gravity of the situation. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)
Even a simple DUI can spiral into a recurring problem if the addict or alcoholic does not recognize the gravity of the situation. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)

The link between addiction and legal issues has been documented for quite some time. The National Institute of Drug Abuse published a research guide on criminal justice populations in which they collected several statistics from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. The numbers they published were eye-opening. In 2012, there were close to 7 million Americans housed in correctional facilities, with close to 4.8 million on probation or parole. While 17.4% of federal prisoners and nearly 15% of state prisoners had reportedly received treatment for substance dependency, it is estimated that this is less than one-fifth of the number of prisoners who actually needed it.

That gives us an average of 16.2% of prisoners between state and federal prison who are receiving the treatment they require to begin a process of recovery. Assuming that the estimates are correct, and that at least five times as many prisoners should be in treatment, then there are approximately 5.6 million prisoners and close to 3.9 million individuals under parole and probation who are currently struggling with addiction. If you add those together, the result would indicate that somewhere around 40% of the estimated 23.5 million Americans struggling with addiction have encountered legal issues at one point or another. And those are just the ones who were caught and punished.

These numbers are staggering and, while many of them are mere estimates, they paint a very grim picture of the state in which addicts and alcoholics often find themselves. A Huffington Post article from 2012 (the same year in which the above DOJ statistics were published) indicates that around 23% of prisoners incarcerated under California’s three strikes law were punished for multiple accounts of drug-related crimes, including possession. And while the other most common legal issues accounting for three strikes violations were crimes such as burglary, robbery and assault, it is impossible to determine with any real precision how many of these repeat offenses were committed by sober individuals. Given the above numbers, the assumption is an unpleasant one.

This implies a rather cyclical link between legal issues and addiction. While the three strikes law means that anyone guilty of a nonviolent crime such as marijuana possession could go to jail for up to 25 years, many continued to recklessly commit the exact same crimes for which they had already been reprimanded. But what is the cause? Is it psychological, such as antisocial personality disorder, or is it simply that drugs and alcohol weaken the abuser’s inhibitions and cause them to behave in a manner which is grievously out of character?

The issue may lie somewhere on the psychological side of things. In 2004, close to three-fourths of state prisoners with mental health issues were reported to have been abusing drugs. But those without psychological diagnoses still used addictive substances at a rate of about 56%, which is still over half. No matter what the cause, it appears that many legal issues are centered heavily on substance abuse.

Why Incarceration Is Not A Deterrent

While prison may be unpleasant, that doesn’t always make it effective as a behavioral modifier. (Fotolia/rudall30)
While prison may be unpleasant, that doesn’t always make it effective as a behavioral modifier. (Fotolia/rudall30)

As mentioned above, nearly a quarter of those punished under the three strikes law in California alone are guilty of drug-related crimes. Those who do not fully understand the mind of the addict may believe that one strike should be a deterrent, and that two strikes should be a call to action. Yet California Watch, a subsidy of the Center for Investigative Reporting, reported in 2012 that close to 70% of offenders with three strikes demonstrated a high need for addiction recovery treatment. While this is only indicative of a subset of those facing major legal issues in a single state, it presents a further demonstration of just how many criminal offenders across the nation are grappling with addiction.

The ACLU takes issue with the high rate of recidivism in the United States, and they argue that incarceration is not a deterrent. They point to LEAD, Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, as an example of one possible alternative to the currently utilized method of criminal justice. The ACLU reported that LEAD, which has been in effect since 2012, prefers the provision of treatment and other recovery services to simple jail sentences. Many addicts have recovered through this and similar programs, and that the program even appears to be more successful than common drug courts by refusing to jail or otherwise turn its back on those who suffer a relapse.

What’s almost frightening is that at least some law enforcement agencies appear to already maintain awareness that incarceration is not a deterrent, nor does it help the addict to recover. In writing about the three strikes law, the Legislative Analyst’s Office of California writes that repeat offenders “are considered unresponsive to incarceration as a means of behavior modification, and undeterred by the prospect of serving time in prison.” Their rationale for the three strikes law is simply that “longer sentences for this group of offenders have a strong appeal to policy makers and the public.” In other words, they are not trying to help reform criminals. Their aim is simply to mollify the lawmakers and public taxpayers.

This attitude toward recidivism only serves to propel the cycle of legal issues already experienced by numerous addicts and alcoholics. Many criminals require cognitive behavioral therapy to correct their behavior, especially those who suffer from substance dependency. The same people whom the three strikes law is meant to placate might actually spend less tax dollars while living in a safer environment if more substance abusers were able to receive the help they truly need.

To be clear, no one here is saying that the lawmakers in any state do not care, or that they are not trying to handle current rates of recidivism in the best way they know how. But for the addict, reform requires more than a stint behind bars. There is a reason that alcoholics used to be kept in inebriate asylums, and it wasn’t just for lack of better ideas. They took their inspiration from insane asylums because they recognized that there was something inherently wrong with the mind of an addict. This is the issue that must be addressed, and it cannot be addressed while the addict is withering away behind bars. Recovery treatment is simply the most viable option.

The Legal Rights of Recovering Addicts

The scales of justice may seem unbalanced, but nobody is without their rights. (Vladek/Dreamstime)
The scales of justice may seem unbalanced, but nobody is without their rights. (Vladek/Dreamstime)

Addicts and alcoholics who are able to enter recovery are given certain rights so that they may seek the means they need to get their lives back on track. The US Department of Health and Human Services maintains a brochure that outlines these rights, which include freedom from discrimination when seeking employment, housing, education, health care, and vital government services. They also detail how those in recovery can ensure their rights are protected.

The most telling aspect of this brochure is a link published under the section of organizations that can be contacted if one feels that their rights have been violated. This link, which leads to a page published by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, explains how to file a title III complaint as permitted by the Americans with Disabilities Act. In other words, substance dependency is considered to be a disability, not the product of a criminal mind.

Now, Psychology Today points out that the designation of substance dependency as a disability is not itself an excuse for unlawful behavior. Addicts and alcoholics are not protected from losing their jobs when they are found using while on the clock, and they are certainly not protected from reprimand when they are found guilty of committing illegal acts of indiscretion. If such were the case, it is possible that no one would ever recover. But that does not solve the problem of incarceration as a failed deterrent, nor does it benefit the addict to know that they may be punished for having what the government considers to be a disability.

That is what makes aforementioned programs such as Seattle’s LEAD so beneficial. Those who rack up legal issues while they are in the throes of addiction are not simply let off the hook. But instead of becoming prisoners, probationers or parolees, they are given a form of reprimand which actually serves to help them. While some skeptics like to refer to rehabilitation centers as a “revolving door,” studies have shown that those who receive treatment are more likely to stay sober for at least three years without relapsing than those who attempt to recover on their own.

Even cases of relapse do not signify that treatment has failed. Unfortunately, some addicts and alcoholics simply require more treatment than others. The National Institute on Drug Abuse writes in the above-linked article that relapse rates for addicts are similar to the symptomatic relapses experienced by those with other physiological illnesses such as asthma and diabetes. This should drive the point that addiction is, for all intents and purposes, a disability. So forget about legal rights such as housing and employment; those with a treatable disability have the right to seek the treatment they need. If providing such treatment can help to lower crime rates and rates of recidivism, then we have a moral obligation to allow addicts with legal issues to receive the treatment they need.

How Amethyst Recovery Can Help

Freedom is within reach. And those who seek treatment will find it in more ways than one. (Igor Goncharenko/123RF)
Freedom is within reach. And those who seek treatment will find it in more ways than one. (Igor Goncharenko/123RF)

Here at Amethyst Recovery, we are first and foremost dedicated to the treatment of alcoholism and addiction, regardless of the sufferer’s previous legal issues. Not only do we offer treatment programs based upon a process of recovery which is proven to help those in need, but we also do our best to ensure that those who leave our facilities will have the personal tools they need to get their feet back under them.

Hutchinson and Huffman, a law firm located in West Palm Beach, has found that one of the best ways to help addicts with legal issues is through the implementation of a court liaison program. This is essentially a program by which the treatment center works with the patient to communicate with members of the justice system such as the courts and parole officers in order to ensure that any fallout from past legal issues will not result in unduly harsh punishments that may hinder the patient’s recovery.

Not only is Amethyst dedicated to providing court liaison services to any patients in need, but even founder Ian Treacy is a skilled court liaison with knowledge of patient case management and an interest in social services. While patients are staying at our facilities (including transitional housing such as our six sober living homes), they will receive the help they need to properly deal with the consequences of their addictive past and transition smoothly into a future of recovery.

Our court liaison can help patients with lingering legal issues through such means as advocating on their behalf to transfer their probation and count their addiction recovery treatment against their charges in lieu of incarceration. It is no secret that nobody comes to treatment when they are on top of the world. By enrolling in treatment at Amethyst Recovery, patients have already recognized their disease (such as heroin addiction) and have taken a monumental step toward recovering from it. Why should they be punished? Those who are serious about their recovery both need and deserve all the help they can get.

Those who are interested in receiving treatment at Amethyst Recovery, and who would like to learn more about our court liaison services, should feel free to contact us as soon as they can. We are here to help in any way that we can. Addiction is a treatable condition. But treatment doesn’t begin in the court room, much less behind bars.

Categories: Categories Addiction, Treatment

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