A guide to court-ordered alcoholism treatment

Alcoholism presents serious dangers to people far beyond the drinker’s reach. With the risk posed by one intoxicated person reaching far and wide into a community — and society in general — the law has stepped in to balance punishment with help.

This guide to court-ordered alcoholism treatment (court-ordered rehab) will explain how the legal system seeks to not just prosecute alcohol-driven offenders, but to try and get them back on the straight and narrow.

Girl discussing the cause of her addiction with doctor

Alcohol and crime

For obvious reasons, courts take alcohol-related offenses seriously. In 2001, the Parliament of Canada quoted a criminology study published by the University of Montreal as saying that the relationship between the abuse of controlled substances (like alcohol) and crime is “almost automatic.” The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence mentions data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program that show 80 percent of all people who are incarcerated use drugs or alcohol.

Reporting on that statistic, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (and mentioned in The New York Times) explained that some of those inmates had been drunk when they broke the law; some had stolen money to buy more alcohol; and others had a history of intoxication, which was a factor when they committed the crime(s) for which they were arrested.

Drug courts

Alcoholism treatment that is dictated by a court is simple. If you, as the guilty party, are charged with a non-violent crime that occurred as a direct result of your intoxication, then a court may offer you an option: court-ordered rehab. You receive a reduced, lenient sentence (or avoid prison entirely) by agreeing to get treated for your dangerous drinking problem.

Participating in a court-approved treatment program usually entails accepting legal culpability (pleading guilty) for any damages caused as a result of your intoxication. In return, attending the program will account for a certain part of your sentence (the amount of which will be mandated by a judge, or negotiated between your lawyer and the prosecutor).

Part of the deal may involve appearing at a drug court, which the National Association of Drug Court Professionals explains is a special form of court that specializes in helping eligible defendants receive the help they need, in order for them to recover and resume their normal lives. Drug courts are a combination of various legal and social entities (judges, defense, prosecution, probation, law enforcement, mental health, and social services) collectively recognizing that not everyone who commits an alcohol-related crime is a danger to society and needs to be locked away; but that the people who drink to the point of breaking the law have a problem that needs to be solved with therapy, not (lengthy) incarceration.

Drug courts have proven to be a popular — and busy — remedial program. By May 2012, there were over 2,600 drug courts across the United States.

Such programs may include classes on the dangers of uncontrolled drinking (so called “DUI schools” or “Drunk Driving Education,” where offenders convicted of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (but whose actions did not meet the legal threshold for harsher punishments) are enrolled in a program that addresses any misconceptions or misapprehensions about driving under the influence. An example of a misconception is believing that coffee or a cold shower can cause a driver to instantly sober up, one of five myths about drunk driving, as reported by ABC Action News.

While drunk driving laws vary by jurisdiction, offenders who complete DUI schools (and fulfill any other court sentences) usually have their licenses restored to them, with the understanding that further infractions will be punished more severely.

Another program involves victim impact panels, where families of victims of alcohol-influenced car accidents present their stories. As explained by the advocacy group, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, victim impact panels aim to impress upon DUI offenders the full scope of the danger caused by impaired driving, increasing their sense of mindfulness and responsibility.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explains that court-ordered alcoholism treatment programs are the “primary path of entry” for many people into any kind of system that helps them overcome their habits. Offenders may have been resistant to treatment overtures made by friends and family members, but the shock of falling afoul of the law, and the threat of legal consequences for what they did, may be enough for them to seriously consider getting help for their problem.

Even then, there may be opposition. The NIAAA warns that people tend to be wary of treatment that is based on coercion (“Get in the program or get thrown in jail”). If this is the case, drug courts may employ a particular form of therapy known as motivational enhancement therapy. This is a counseling approach that is designed to help people who are unconvinced about the merits of entering a treatment program to stop their drug abuse. While most forms of therapy entail the therapist carefully guiding the patient through the cause-and-effect steps of their addiction, motivational enhancement therapy (which draws from motivational interviewing and motivational therapy), instead focuses on fast-tracking a patient through their trouble. A standard treatment plan includes only four sessions, covering topics like:

  • Creating an alternative, productive focus in life
  • Developing coping skills for risky situations
  • Achieving goals set forth by the patient
  • Drug abuse cessation strategies
  • How the patient is changing behavior and lifestyle

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, research on motivational enhancement therapy has shown that it is successful with people who are addicted to alcohol; it improves their participation in a treatment program and reduces the rate at which they unhealthily consume alcohol. The NIAAA concludes its assessment of motivational enhancement therapy by explaining that, as a form of therapy, it is a better option for getting patients into treatment than it is in actually helping them to change their behavior.

Other court-mandated alcohol interventions can include acute care and supervised aftercare participation, because individuals who have been convicted of alcohol-related crime often have a number of co-occurring disorders (simultaneous mental health and substance abuse issues) that may increase their risk of returning to alcohol abuse following their release. Such people may need to be enrolled in a long-term treatment program as part of their court sentence, if they wish to remain out of prison.

On the other hand, drug courts also recognize the distinction between a person who is likely to repeat his offense and a person who committed an isolated mistake and who will learn his lesson from the experience. When an offender is entered into the drug court system (a process known as “screening”), he is assessed for the future risk of committing the crime for which he has been convicted. If he has risk factors that are predictive of a recurring problem (such as a dangerous lifestyle, family history of mental health problems or substance abuse, current mental health issues, etc.), then he will likely be compelled to enroll in some (or all) the programs mandated by the court.

Does court-ordered alcoholism treatment work?

Mother with teenage daughterThe National Institute on Drug Abuse has spoken positively on the effects of drug courts and court-ordered alcoholism treatment, saying that such forms of legal pressure increase the time that offenders spend in treatment and provide motivation for them to remain in treatment programs longer. According to studies, says NIDA, the outcomes for people who are coerced to enter treatment are comparable to, if not even better, than for people who enter treatment on a purely voluntary basis.

Similarly, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals emphasizes that court-mandated alcoholism treatment programs “are the most effective justice intervention” to treat people whose substance abuse led them to breaking the law. According to the NADCP, drug courts reduce harmful substance use, reduce crime, save lives, and save money. Legally enforced treatment programs are a better option than jail, probation, and standalone treatment. Drug courts are six times more likely to keep offenders in treatment for a long enough period of time for them to improve. Without the supervision of a judge, 70 percent of alcoholic offenders leave treatment prematurely.

Real help

Drug courts work, but their power is derived from the fear of time spent behind bars and a life permanently changed by the shadow of a prison sentence. It doesn’t have to be like that. If you are worried that someone’s alcohol consumption is leading him or her to a bad place, give The Recovery Village a call today. They can give you the answers you’re looking for regarding treatment, rehabilitation, and the legal implications of alcohol-influenced crime. One conversation can make an enormous difference in someone’s life. Call now.

A Guide to Court-Ordered Alcoholism Treatment
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