Going The Extra Mile
Helping Clients Find Treatment for Addictions and Mental Health Disorders
by J.S. Lucas Fleming, Esq.
According to a study by the Bureau of Justice, substance abuse and mental health issues affect approximately 20% of the general U.S. population and more than 60% of America’s prison population.1 Sadly, addiction and mental illness do not discriminate by race, gender, profession, or level of education. In fact, in high-stress professions such as medicine and law, the rates of depression as well as alcoholism and other addictions can be as much as twice the national average.2
Although family members and friends might have some concerns about a loved one’s drinking or drug habits, persons with substance abuse problems may believe they are completely in control until they are arrested and charged with a DUI or drug-related crime. At that point, a pending criminal case can complicate or delay treatment efforts. Prosecutors and judges are not normally in the business of diagnosing or evaluating those charged with a crime for a possible addiction or mental disorder. Moreover, the defense attorney usually enters the picture after a person has been charged and exits as soon as the case concludes. Rarely is there any follow up by the court or the attorney to help the person through treatment and/or probation.
An unfortunate by-product of this traditional system is that many addictions and disorders go untreated, which can lead to subsequent offenses, arrests, and convictions involving significant prison sentences. For example, the number of inmates at state and federal prisons who have some form of addiction or mental illness has quadrupled in the past six years, yet most prisons lack the resources to treat such individuals properly.3 Even if the person is not sentenced to prison, finding an appropriate course of treatment for substance abuse, mental illness, or both is a difficult and sometimes overwhelming process.
Jail Diversion Options
The increasing number of individuals charged with crimes who have untreated addictions and mental health disorders has prompted counties throughout Florida to form separate, treatment-focused drug courts (including the Pinellas County adult and juvenile drug courts). In addition, some criminal defense lawyers have expanded the scope of traditional criminal defense representation by offering assistance in identifying a proper facility or counselor to implement a course of treatment, along with meeting regularly with the client to ensure that the treatment program complies with court-ordered sanctions.
In addition, following the conclusion of the criminal case, some lawyers continue to maintain ongoing contact with the client and his or her family to ensure that the client remains on the road to recovery. This approach can possibly reduce the client’s length of time on probation and lessen the likelihood of future arrests, which benefits the client, family, and community overall. The following highlights some of the various services a criminal defense lawyer may provide to clients in need of substance abuse and/or mental health treatment.
1. Early Intervention
Early detection of a client’s substance abuse problem and/or mental disorder is critical in preventing future unlawful behavior and arrests. If the lawyer suspects that the client is more than a social drinker or that he has an underlying mental health issue, the lawyer may call upon the client’s family and friends to assist in an intervention to encourage the client to seek treatment.
2. Psychiatric Evaluation
A lawyer may also hire a neuropsychiatrist to evaluate clients who appear to have an addiction or mental health disorder. The evaluation may occur at the firm, and the neuropsychiatrist can assist the client and his or her family in identifying the possible addictions and/or mental issues at hand, as well as discussing the various treatment options and available local facilities. Such an evaluation facilitates the lawyer’s ability to identify potential defenses and compile a viable treatment plan for the client.
3. Identification of an Appropriate Treatment Program
Working with clients as well as close family members is vital to successful treatment, as is identifying the right facility and program. Treatment programs are varied and include hospitalization, residential rehabilitation, sober living or transitional housing, out-patient programs, and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Such programs also range widely in cost and the availability of insurance coverage, but the lawyer can assist the client and family in negotiating an appropriate and affordable fee according to the desired treatment plan.
4. Regular Contact and Follow Up
Once a client has embarked on an appropriate course of treatment for an addiction or mental disorder, the lawyer continues to monitor the client’s progress through regular contact with the client and his or her family. If the program does not appear to be working as intended, the lawyer may suggest other treatment options and provide the necessary contact information. While a person generally cannot be committed to a hospital or treatment program involuntarily (unless the person appears to be a threat to himself or others), the threat of incarceration is frequently a good motivator for clients to remain in a treatment program. Although an addict’s ultimate success depends on the level of commitment to staying clean and sober (apart from the threat of jail), a court order requiring treatment plants a seed of hope and introduces the person to a better way of life.
5. Professional License Counseling
It’s not uncommon for individuals who hold professional licenses, such as medical doctors and lawyers, to suffer from substance abuse as a result of the long hours and stressful conditions frequently associated with such occupations. The criminal defense lawyer should be able to assist such clients in understanding how certain criminal charges, such as DUI or prescription drug trafficking, can affect their professional licenses and how they can re-establish suspended or revoked licenses.
A growing number of criminal defense lawyers are going the extra mile to try to keep clients with addictions and mental disorders out of jail and in recovery by offering treatment assistance in addition to traditional legal representation. This approach guides clients and their families through this emotionally-charged process, and by reducing the number of prison inmates and repeat offenders, it ultimately benefits society as a whole.
Lucas Fleming is the founding partner of The Fleming Law Group in St. Petersburg, which handles all aspects of criminal defense, including addiction and mental health treatment assistance. Lucas is also Chair of the Solo, Small Firm and Practice Management Section of the St. Petersburg Bar Association and serves on the Bar’s Executive Committee.
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