Court-Forced into 12-Step

By Laura Barcella 11/26/13

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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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.

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Laura Barcella has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2011. She recently wrote about love addiction and secret sober pot smokers. You can find Laura on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.