Representing Defendants with Substance Abuse Issues

A large part of my firm’s criminal practice focuses upon representing criminal defendants with substance abuse issues.  These defendants are typically addicted to cocaine or heroin.  Many of these clients are simultaneously addicted to numerous substances (typically referred to as poly-substances abusers).  These clients present special challenges that must be met if they are to obtain the best possible result in their cases.

It may sound overly simplistic, but attorneys representing drug-addicted defendants need to remember that their status as addicts goes hand-in-glove with their criminal charge(s), and their addiction issues will affect every aspect of the case.  For example, most addicts have great difficulty taking personal responsibility for their actions.  As far as they are concerned, few, if any, of the circumstances that led to their current criminal charges can be attributed to their conduct; rather, it is almost certainly the fault of someone or something else.  Further, addicts have a propensity to not tell the truth.  The defense attorney must be very careful in accepting as true anything that their client tells them about the facts and circumstances that led to the current criminal charges.  Additionally, these clients can also be very irresponsible.  They frequently miss court dates, as well as appointments with treatment providers or probation officers.  Such conduct can result in the denial of admission to a diversionary program, or a violation of probation.  Finally, most criminal judges – particularly those who sit in courts that see a significant number of drug addicted defendants will – almost as a knee-jerk reaction – refuse to view these defendants as credible in any way.  Getting a judge to believe your client about almost anything can be difficult without something to corroborate it.  However, the client can sometimes benefit from their attorney’s credibility with the court.

Many States, including New Jersey, have drug court programs.  These are diversionary programs which focus upon providing treatment in lieu of penal sanctions.  They are staffed by people who have special training and experience in working with addicts.  Generally speaking, a defendant has to have a serious addiction issue and a relatively minimal criminal background to be accepted into the program. (An offender with a record of violent offenses or sex offenses will have hard time finding an in-patient program that will accept them.)  The drug court program is, however, difficult to complete.  Clients have to be committed, focused, and willing to work hard in order to graduate successfully from drug court.  I have encountered drug addicted clients who would rather accept a county jail or State prison sentence rather than have their case diverted to drug court because they believe the former is easy while the latter is, relatively speaking, too difficult.

Criminal defendants with addiction issues can benefit from family support.   Most judges will be more willing to work with defendants who have family members that will assist them with housing and other basic needs, and make sure that they will appear in court when required and comply with treatment recommendations.  However, some family members are “enablers”.  They fail or refuse to assist the defendant in complying with court-imposed requirements, and actually assist the defendant in inventing excuses for their own failures.  Family members have to be willing to be honest with themselves, the defendant and the attorney if the case is to move toward a positive conclusion.

These cases are almost difficult from an administrative perspective.  They frequently require more court appearances than case involving a defendant that does not have a drug problem.  The attorney will also have to deal with a larger array of individuals than just a prosecutor and a judge.  These include representatives of probation and treatment staff, as well as any experts the defense may require.  Thus, these matters take more attorney time to complete.

There is also a distinction between short-term and long-term goals.  Long-term success is ultimately up to the client.  Drug-addicted clients have to want to accept treatment and make changes in how they conduct themselves.  an individual matter may conclude successfully, but absent a solution to the problems that led to the charges, the client will probably incur new charges in the future.



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