Changing the criminal justice system

Photo of Kristen Goettsch, Face It TOGETHER senior evaluation scientist


Published June 3, 2015

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 7 million adults are involved in the criminal justice system, due largely to prosecutions of drug-related crimes and drug-addicted offenders. Last week, the Pacific Standard released an article by Maia Szalavitz, How America Overdosed on Drug Courts. Szalavitz discusses several areas for improvement in the current drug court system, including:

  • Issues with case-by-case decision making by the courts, regardless of the evidenced-based best practices;
  • A system that often chooses to shame the person suffering from the addiction; and
  • Relapse, while the in system, often leads to increased incarceration, even though the person may have started out with a petty crime that may not have resulted in any jail time.

Szalavitz makes a compelling argument for system change. I was most interested in her references to the impact of the failed drug court system on loved ones. This article became personal to me. My son entered into the justice system before he turned 16-years-old. And, while it wasn’t the adult system, or even a drug court as referenced in the article, my experiences as a parent in that system were right on target with the issues Szalavitz identified.

At a recent SMART Friends & Family meeting, another mother asked me if I had ever experienced any painful flashbacks when it came to my son’s court experience. I hadn’t – until recently when a coworker mentioned a meeting he had with a judge, the same judge my son and I sat across from not that long ago. The feelings of pain and frustration with that system’s approach to my son’s disease came rushing back. This was the painful flashback the other parents had talked about.

In her article, Szalavitz quotes a mother whose son entered into the drug court system, “As a mom, she felt relieved that her son would be safe, at the very least, and that he would finally be forced to stay in treatment long enough for the professionals to find out what would actually work for him.” I suspect this is a very common response from parents of individuals suffering from the disease of addiction. Help is coming! Finally!

I cannot recall how many times my son appeared before the judge in the juvenile court system. I’m surprised this number isn’t permanently etched into my brain. I can say that in the three years that he was involved in the system it was at least a dozen times that I accompanied my minor son to stand before a judge, the same judge each time, to hear a decision, a reprimand.

Like the mom in the article, I was at first relieved that, finally, my son would get the help he needed, and I would get directed to some type of support to help our family. I learned pretty quickly that my expectations for appropriate help were greatly elevated.

My son and I experienced most of the issues discussed in this article. While my son’s sentencing was consistent because we were always in front of the same judge, it is now clear to me, looking back, that none of the judgements passed on to my son were based off of evidenced-based best practices.

The shaming by the system on both my son and I was mind numbing and it took my breath away. As a single mom, unsure of how to even take a next step at that point, the last thing I needed to hear was that my son was again being locked up because I couldn’t control him. Or that he was a bad kid, a stoner, a failure. He and I both needed access to someone, anyone, to provide us with direction to recovery support.

His time in the system all started because of truancy. This led to him being locked up, or handcuffed in school and taken away in a police car to be locked up again. Each time he tested positive for drugs. This led to more time locked up, or in court-ordered treatment. And, the cycle starting over again and again each time he was released. Without a plan for recovery support, my son would relapse, which would lead to skipping school, then truancy charges, then testing dirty, then being locked up again.

My son will turn 22 years old this summer. I thought I was past all of the feelings associated with that time, until I heard the name of the judge my son spent too much time in front of. And I was brought to tears. All of the feelings of frustration with the system, with my son’s disease, with the lack of recovery support, with the lack of direction came flooding back with intense force.

I am not over that part of my life, nor do I ever want to forget. Instead, I choose to use those feelings and work with others to impact change. We can establish our programming in a way that we clearly evaluate the outcomes of the work that we are doing. So others, including those working in drug courts or any judicial/corrections system, can have the evidence needed to make informed decisions. We can remove the stigma and shame associated with this disease so no person, no loved one, ever has to hear those negative words again.

I cannot say it any more eloquently than this fellow mom said in Szalavitz’s article: “You have to remember... that that’s somebody’s daughter or son, and a human being who’s suffering. We cannot continue to call addiction a disease and not begin treating it as one.”


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