Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Judging Addicts by Rebecca Tiger

Judging Addicts: Drug Courts and Coercion in the Justice System, Rebecca Tiger. New York: New York University Press, 2013. e-book, 209 pps.

The judicial system today is supervising more people than ever in a variety of courts. We have drug courts, family courts, mental health courts, veteran courts, homelessness courts and so on. [See for a quasi-humorous approach to Neurology Court].

Rebecca Tiger addresses some serious issues involved with the coercion of people labeled as addicts by drug courts into treatment, the failure of punishment as "therapy," and why the authoritarian approach to this particular 'social problem' is fail. She points that that there is no medical evidence that points to addiction as being a disease. 

Although people in jails who are given a choice of drug court or prison, this is not to be understood as self-determination. Drug court defendants [not "participants"] are faced with court-ordered day treatment programs, court-ordered residential programs [sometimes for some people], court-ordered drug testing, court-ordered counseling, and court-ordered participation in specific social activities. The defendant must please the judge, the drug court staff, the probation officer, the day treatment staff, the residential staff [if they have been mandated to a 'therapeutic community' or halfway house or community residence...], and the community. It is very much like living in a fishbowl with cranky and demanding neighbors. Those who do not respond to the party line by acknowledging that they have 'a disease called addiction' or who otherwise do not display socially acceptable values face negative consequences ranging from being knocked back a level or more to flash incarceration for a weekend or a week. If one is late to day treatment one day-- a bit of jail time and maybe an essay. If one stays home from day treatment one day because of physical illness-- a bit of jail time and maybe an essay. If one dares to fill a prescription written by his or her physician without checking with drug court personnel first-- a bit of jail time and maybe an essay. 

Because the drug court defendants-- who have been screened and found to be addicted before acceptance into the drug court program-- are judged to be making messes of their lives, the drug court staff is tasked with learning everything possible about their life experiences and using this violation of privacy to 'help' them get back on their feet.

The drug court session is a stage and the judge is the chief actor. The judge has the power to offer praise and encouragement and the power to withdraw approval by banishing a defendant to jail time. Those who fail drug court usually have to serve out their prison sentences without any credit for being in drug court or for time already served.

The author suggests that the problem here is without our legal system and the popularized view of addiction as a "brain disease." Because the addicted have to clean up in order to grow up, the drug court becomes a parent. The defendants are the errant children.

But the defendants are adults. Coerced treatment is not "enlightened coercion" no matter what mental gymnastics one does with words and concepts. The author advocates for a harm reduction approach by loosening up our current laws and by acknowledging that there is pleasure in getting drunk or high for many people as well as bits of pain. Defendants are forced to take on a label as primary identification instead of being allowed to decide for themselves among viable and appealing options what it is they wish to do and how to address their lawlessness.

sapphoq reviews says: I personally know a drug court judge. He cared about people who were struggling with life problems long before he got involved in drug court. He is an exceptional individual. While I have seen first-hand astonishing results via the drug court in town, I have also seen some disasters.

The idea of "enlightened coercion" bothers me. That treatment providers have such power over defendants bothers me also.  I think that addiction is overly-diagnosed. I also think that traditional treatment which relies heavily on the twelve steps is not for everyone. There are inherent problems with the drug court model that this book got me to acknowledge and think about. We are becoming a nation under supervision and I don't like that either. Judging Addicts is a provocative book which challenges the status quo. Highly recommended. 

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