Ask an Expert: Why is AA Affiliating With the Courts?

By Joe Nowinski 01/25/16

The court system is sending increasing numbers to closed AA meetings. It's usually very obvious they are only there to get their court-slips signed, and many are not even alcoholics.

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Ask an Expert: Why is AA Affiliating With the Courts?
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To Whom It May Concern,

Why has Alcoholics Anonymous lost its way in regard to "cooperating with the courts"? In fact, why have they chosen to disregard most of their Traditions? Based on a recent International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous panel on "AA and the Courts" they have clearly slid over from cooperation and into affiliation that the Traditions clearly warn against.

Furthermore, in an effort to be all-inclusive they are "welcoming" all addicts, both from the courts and from treatment centers.

In another effort to be all-inclusive, they have completely abandoned the idea of a closed meeting versus an open meeting. An open meeting, as described in the 12th Tradition chapter of the 12 and 12, was designed for the prospect to come to and familiarize themselves with the AA program and determine if the AA program was one they could see themselves working. This decision would be based in the realization that they clearly had the same problem and because they agreed that a spiritual solution was the answer to their alcohol problem.

In modern AA, the courts send masses to closed meetings when they obviously are there to only get their slips signed. Many are not even alcoholic. The general population of AA is willing to tolerate this because a few (less than 1%?) actually get sober, instead of looking at the reality that the first person that is there (a closed meeting) for any reason other than a desire to stop drinking is violating the sanctity of a closed meeting. It is undeniable that when the closed meetings reach a point of over 50% (actually a much lower percentage) attendance by parties affiliated with the courts, you no longer have an AA meeting. Not only has the culture and chemistry of that meeting changed, the culture and chemistry of AA as a whole has changed.

Ironically, the AA that the first judges sent the first few probationers to, and who had some success in enacting a recovery, is no longer available to send them to! In fact, those first few that were sent were drunk drivers who begged the judge for an opportunity to prove that their criminality was a result of their disease and given a choice of recovery over jail that they would prove to the judge they were worthy of a break. In other words, they were self-admitted alcoholics who wanted the AA method of recovery so they had a right to be in a closed meeting.

Unfortunately, the one Tradition that the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous will follow will be that of no comment on matters of public controversy. Unfortunately for the GSO, the general population of AA that has more than 20 years of sobriety (those who remember what it was like before the affiliation took place) do not agree that this is a "public controversy." They see it as an internal controversy that has the GSO's fingerprints all over it. The GSO has had sobriety court judges as non-alcoholic trustees for at least two decades. How could that "affiliation" not lead to the greater issue of affiliation?

All of this has lead to a stratification within AA as "real alcoholics" seek out "real" AA meetings instead of these "welcoming committee" meetings created by the affiliation with the courts. These sincere attendees leave behind even weaker and sicker meetings. Private invite-only meetings are up and hardline groups such as Primary Purpose, Back to Basics, Joe and Charlie, and Big Book Sponsorship cliques have risen to prominence. All these are seen as an option to the real alcoholic but greatly reduce the chance that a suffering alcoholic who is directed to AA by any source is going to stumble into a group that is not filled with insincere participants. 

One final note on this process of stratification. It is ironic that according to AA's own literature on the purpose of the Traditions, they are designed to ensure AA's anonymity, unity and thereby its continued survival. That way ensuring that AA will be there for the next alcoholic that needs it. The unintended consequences of the affiliation with the courts as detailed above seems to be "proof" that the goal of the Traditions is not coming to fruition and therefore the only logical conclusion is that the Traditions have been broken.


Joe Nowinski: There is a lot here worth talking about. Let me be clear that I do not speak for AA. I’m not even sure if a panel at an AA conference is empowered to interpret AA’s Steps or Traditions. However, as a clinician and trainer I have become very familiar with the issue of mandated (coerced?) AA attendance by courts.

There seems to be a few reasons for this trend, the first of which is that AA is free. Were courts to mandate “treatment” the issue then becomes who is to pay for that treatment—the courts? In other instances, it is the defendant who must pay, as for example when someone charged with domestic violence is mandated to complete an “anger management” program. But mandating individuals with severe substance use disorders to pay for mandated treatment may prove a daunting challenge for the courts. Easier to mandate AA.

A second issue may be that courts in fact confuse voluntary fellowships like AA and NA with “treatment,” which by tradition, they are not. Bill Wilson was wise when he declined an offer to affiliate his fledgling fellowship with Townes Hospital; John Rockefeller was similarly wise when he declined to underwrite AA, arguing it would be better off being self-funded. In such decisions the AA tradition of remaining a program of attraction (as opposed to coercion) has its origins. Personally, I believe that abandoning such a tradition places AA and other 12-step fellowships at risk.

Third, courts may be guilty of overkill if they mandate every defendant whose legal issue stems from substance use to a fellowship whose goal is abstinence for those with severe substance use disorders. There may be many others whose problems are more in the mild to mild-moderate range who can benefit from treatment aimed at moderating use and reducing risk. Once again, however, the issue of payment for services may work against such choices.

I have heard many clinicians complain that their clients, being mandated to attend AA or NA (and also get a sponsor) have inundated these fellowships in some areas. They tell me that some individuals in recovery feel obligated to “sign on” as sponsors for 20 or more court-mandated individuals. Clearly that dilutes the sponsor-sponsee relationship to the point of being meaningless. And this is no small matter, since research has shown that regular contact with a sponsor is associated with better sobriety. Finally, I agree that closed meetings are not designed for court-mandated individuals unless they have sincerely reached the point where they accept the need for abstinence and are ready to reach out for support to achieve that goal.

A willingness to reach out to others is commendable, but not at the cost of compromising traditions that have seen 12-step fellowships thrive as places to go for those who have a desire to stop drinking or using, as opposed to merely punching a ticket.

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. is the principal author of Twelve Step Facilitation, which is listed in the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices. The second edition of the TSF Handbook, to include TSF for co-occurring disorders, will be published in 2017. Full bio.

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