Overcoming Stigma with Treatment Courts

Hand on a Chain Link Fence

Sixty-five million Americans have a criminal record. That is 65 million people living with barriers to employment, education, housing, and other key assets needed to build a life. To raise awareness about the limits placed on formerly incarcerated people re-entering society, the Justice Programs Office (JPO) has joined other organizations in declaring April 2018 “Second Chance Month.” During my time at JPO, my work has focused on substance use issues, and I have witnessed the added stigma given to those with substance use disorders in the criminal justice system. Labeling a person as an “addict” and a “criminal” effectively reduces their humanity and serves as justification for denying them support services. This stigma is something treatment courts actively work against. These specialized court programs are designed to recognize the dignity of every person and provide them with an opportunity for a second chance. 

Treatment courts are founded on the understanding that every person is capable of exercising agency. It is commonly said that the only requirement to enter long-term treatment is to be breathing. Treatment courts couple this belief in the individual with an understanding of treatment and the science of addiction in their programming. This philosophy shapes how treatment courts administer justice, giving people a chance to lead healthy, crime-free lives once again.  Below are some ways in which treatment courts extend a second chance to their participants:

  • A record doesn’t keep people out of the program. Treatment courts specifically accept people who are at risk of committing another crime and have a serious substance use disorder. The severity of their addiction or their past contact with law enforcement doesn’t bar their entry, in fact it could be a prerequisite.
  • Relapse is not a sign of a character flaw but a biological response to withdrawal. Treatment courts are well versed in the science of addiction and recovery. If a person relapses while in treatment court, the court does not take it as an indicator that person can’t successfully sustain sobriety and remain in recovery. The science of treatment indicates that relapse is common, and the court works with participants to prevent the next relapse.
  • Failure to meet obligations does not result in immediate expulsion. Treatment courts require a lot of participants. When participants fail to meet expectations, they are not immediately kicked out of the program. Each infraction is met with graduated punishments to motivate behavior change and get participants back on track.
  • The staff offers support in housing, employment, and education. For many people in treatment court, a healthy life starts with recovery from a substance use disorder, but it doesn’t end there. Treatment courts take a holistic, sustainable approach to case management and offer support services in key areas like employment placement, housing, and education opportunities.
  • Original charges can be fully expunged. If a person in treatment court successfully graduates from the program, some courts remove the original charges that placed them in court in the first place. If this is the only charge on their record, the person can live without the burden of a criminal record, removing barriers to full participation in society.

There are many ways to reform the criminal justice system to reflect dignity and the promise of a second chance. Treatment courts are an important part of re-considering what it means to achieve justice and change lives for the better. To learn more, visit ndcrc.org.

Megan Ward is a Program Associate at the Justice Programs Office.