Addiction In The Courtroom [Guest Post]
Forensic psychology and the paradox of addiction.
Allison Gamble says she has been a curious student of psychology since high school. Though her studies ultimately led her to writing and editing, she keeps her understanding of the mind close at hand in the weird world of internet marketing.
The paradox of addiction presents a legal conundrum when it comes to determining the extent of a defendant’s guilt in criminal court. Although addiction is generally considered a mental health condition, it does not lie within the parameters that typically define mental illness in the courts. Though defense lawyers may present addiction as a mitigating factor–in some cases influencing the jury to vote for a lesser conviction–addiction does not excuse the defendant from being legally responsible for the crime.
Forensic psychology is a field that weaves together psychology and the criminal justice system. Oftentimes these insights prove useful for determining legal guilt or innocence. For example, if a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, it is likely due to the work of a forensic psychologist. However, when it comes to crimes involving addictive behavior, forensic psychology is faced with paradoxical truths regarding addiction, and the relationship between addiction and responsibility for one’s actions.
A commonly held view of addiction is that it is a disease marked by lack of control. An alcoholic cannot stop himself from drinking. Likewise, a drug addict will do things no one in their right mind would ever do just to get the next high. All of these people may thoroughly regret their behavior when the high wears off, but that does not stop them from doing it again. Indeed, they often cannot stop without help.
Paradoxically, however, addiction is all about choice. A crucial part of treatment for addiction requires the addict to take full responsibility for his or her behavior. Addicts must recognize that their addictive behavior is, on some level, a choice, and that they can choose differently. It is not clear to what extent biology plays a role in starting an addiction. Social and emotional factors also play parts, both in forming an addiction and in continuing it.
This creates a huge gray area when an addict commits a crime related to his or her addiction. Did the person have control over their behavior? Is the addiction itself a choice, or something the addict can’t help any more than they could help catching the flu? Especially in cases where the addiction itself is a crime, such as compulsive shoplifting or narcotic use, these questions are crucial in determining the defendant’s responsibility for the crime and an appropriate sentence. Generally if these questions can be answered at all, the answer is often both yes and no, and the legal system often reflects this dichotomy: People convicted of addiction-related crimes may be ordered into treatment as part of their sentences. In some cases, especially for crimes not involving violence or repeat offenses, criminal charges are dropped if the defendant agrees to treatment. However, a defendant being treated for addiction may also be sentenced to jail time, probation, fines, community service, and/or restitution, especially if the crime involved violence or property damage. Since addiction is both under and outside of the addict’s control, someone who commits an addiction-related crime should be both held responsible and offered treatment.
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