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Court-Forced into 12-Step

The long-term practice of courts sentencing offenders to attend AA and NA meetings is increasing, and the effects on both the fellowships and the sentenced has wide-ranging consequences. The Fix investigates.

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By Laura Barcella

11/26/13

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Last year, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services got sued. Why? Because in August 2011, a 31-year-old woman named Karla Brada Mendez was allegedly murdered by her boyfriend—a man she’d met in, yes, an AA meeting. Unbeknownst to Mendez, her new guy, Eric Allen Earle, had a long criminal record of domestic violence (six restraining orders’ worth) and a history of using the program as a personal pickup joint. When they first met at a meeting in 2011, Earle—later charged with strangling Mendez to death—had been court-ordered to attend AA meetings, as an alternative to jail, in the San Fernando Valley.

In its civil wrongful death suit, Mendez’ family, understandably grief-stricken, made a bold claim—that "AA meetings are repeatedly used by financial, sexual, and violent predators as a means to locate victims." Whatever your opinion of those assertions, the Mendez suit raises questions about legal offenders in the 12-step world (the somber minions lining up to get their slips of paper signed at the end of a meeting is a regular sight)—namely, does court-ordered AA work? What risks, if any, could it pose to the other people in a meeting? And is it in keeping with AA’s principles—does everyone who’s being forced to ban the bottle have a legitimate “desire to stop drinking”?

There’s AA or NA everywhere and it costs nothing, so courts love ordering it.

In literature about court-ordered 12-step, AA addresses that issue, stating, “If you have a desire to stop drinking, you may consider yourself an AA member. . .Please do not attend Closed meetings if you don't [want to stop drinking].” Of course, it’s doubtful that everyone court-coerced into 12-step would take the initiative to seek out literature about it. Dee-Dee Stout, an alcohol and drug counselor in Emeryville, Calif., feels the court is erroneous in viewing AA as a “treatment modality” for addiction. “It’s not,” she says. “[Prescribing AA] is like sending a breast cancer patient to a support group for ‘treatment.’”

Others disagree—and every year, courts continue doling out “prescriptions” of AA and NA. According to the NIAAA (the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), the criminal justice system was the primary referral source for 36 percent of all substance abuse treatment admissions in 2002. But court-compelled treatment (to curtail drinking and driving and treat addiction) has long been common in the sanctioning process, particularly for DUI offenders—it’s been happening for decades. And “drug courts,” which send eligible drug-addicted perps to at least one year of closely supervised addiction treatment, have an impressively high success rate—at least for reducing crime and arrests. According to the NADCP (National Association of Drug Court Professionals) website, “Nationwide, 75% of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program.”

Sheri Sandecki, an attorney in Fullerton, Calif., with experience in these types of cases, says court-ordered AA/NA has grown increasingly common, for good reason. “There’s AA or NA everywhere and it costs nothing, so courts love ordering it,” she says. Indeed, according to Alcoholics Anonymous’ internal membership surveys, every year the legal system orders more than 150,000 people to AA meetings, a significant proportion of that program's estimated 1.3 million members in the United States. Some DUI offenders are instructed to attend AA or NA for months, regularly tracking their attendance and getting court slips signed as proof they’re upholding their sentence. Others may have longer rap sheets (like Earle, above), but manage to get an AA/NA “sentence” instead of jail time. So ... when is 12-step a healthy option for these folks? Dee-Dee Stout is slightly dubious, noting that for some of them, AA/NA is helpful, but “for some people, standing on their heads in the corner can be helpful.” The problem, as she sees it, is the rooms’ lack of leadership and rules. When potential members aren’t screened, Stout believes the doors are flung open to all sorts of unsavory, potentially dangerous characters. “Terrible things can occur because no one is in charge,” Stout says.

All hand-wringing aside, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services is surely aware of potential concerns arising from mixing legal offenders with “regular” citizens. But that doesn’t mean it will take action on the matter, and there’s no consensus about whether action is even warranted—i.e., whether the church basements of AA are truly more dangerous than, well, anywhere else. (If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the escalating spate of deadly shootings in recent years, it’s that, sadly, no one is immune to violence, anywhere.) Anti- and ex-AA folks like to highlight their strident views about the sex abuse, assaults, and other predatory crimes that have occurred here and there in the program, but in reality, such abuse doesn’t seem well documented.

Various memos floating around the Internet claim to convey official AA statements on the subject of abuse, like this one called “Predators in AA”: “Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon Family Groups and Alcoholics Anonymous in Great Britain and Australia have taken tangible strides to deal with the problem of child sexual abuse and other such issues in their Fellowships. . .In the March 2006 NA Conference Report it was noted that, ‘Our greatest challenge this past year was dealing with unsafe and dangerous people in local groups.’” All kinds of complaints, from minor (club houses charging too much money for books) to more serious (complaints about inappropriate behavior from a secretary) do arise, of course, at individual meetings. And though the General Service Office in New York meets regularly to review correspondence about these complaints, AA is an independent nonprofit that invokes the 4th Tradition (that each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting AA as a whole) in dealing with such issues.

AA would be going against its own principles to institute a vetting process for who can and can’t join.

Fortunately, most 12-steppers accept—even appreciate—the fact that each meeting is its own lawless entity. And plenty of AAs aren’t especially alarmed by the prospect of mingling with a wide variety of characters, even ones who’ve scraped with the law. Betsy, 34, of Berkeley, Calif., says she makes a point of staying aware of her surroundings and the people near her in meetings, but has never felt afraid. “I’m not scared in meetings,” she says. “I’ve never felt personally threatened by anyone in AA, and I’ve never felt vulnerable to abusive sorts.” She concedes, though, that some people might not be as lucky. “My girl friends have shared some pretty shady ‘13th-step’ stories,” she says. “And some of them were gross, sure, but they weren’t that extreme—and they definitely weren’t illegal.” Betsy doesn’t think it’s logical, ethical, or even truly possible for AA to screen potentially “difficult” members. “That’s not what AA’s about. It’s for everyone. It’d be going against its own principles to institute a vetting process for who can and can’t join.”

Hard statistics about AA’s success among involuntary members are difficult to come by. One study showed that the same number of alcoholics found success in AA regardless of whether they showed up voluntarily or were court-ordered. (About five percent made it to one year sober, regardless of how they got there.) Sheri Sandecki acknowledges the concerns of folks who dislike the presence of “forced” attendees: “I’ve heard people say it poisons the meetings because [of] people who don't want to be there. But if the miracle and message of sobriety can get through, what a wonderful thing,” she says.

Court-ordered AA is no panacea, however. Especially not for atheist offenders who are pushed into 12-step despite specifically requesting an addiction treatment that isn’t spiritually based. As one offender, “Norezen” of Buffalo, NY, posted on an online bulletin board about his experience, “I begged the probation and treatment court to allow me to attend secular treatment (clinics, psychiatrists, counseling) but they absolutely refused.”

Because of this spiritual (some say religious) bent, the practice of court-mandated 12-step attendance has continued to be controversial in recent years—and some courts have outright opposed it. Three federal circuit courts have held that coerced participation in “religion-based” treatment programs like AA and NA violates the First Amendment. As the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco put it, "While we in no way denigrate the fine work of [Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous], attendance in their programs may not be coerced by the state." Sandecki says she’s only witnessed this type of protest once or twice in her nearly 20-year law career, and that most “courts can sidestep around [the First Amendment issue] with a justification of why [the court-mandated AA] is lawful.”

Sandecki also notes that court-ordered 12-step can be difficult for judges to enforce because fraudulent court slips are rampant. “NA and AA are designed to be anonymous, so when you turn a fraudulent card in to the judge, it’s hard for the judge to prove [it’s fake]—they have to track down the meeting, the secretary, etc.” Still, having seen it work firsthand in many formerly shattered lives, she feels the drawbacks of court-prescribed AA are minor compared to its huge capacity to help people: “Some clients don't take it seriously; they’re just trying to get on with their lives without much change. But it can also expose people to NA and AA who wouldn’t have normally been exposed to it—it has the capacity to change millions of lives if it clicks with them.”

Laura Barcella is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about the link between adoption and addiction.

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