Critics feel 12-steps can be worse than addiction
The New Dope
There are no smiles in the City Council Building, especially not on the faces of those lingering outside of the criminal courtroom on any given Wednesday. The doors open, around 4:30 p.m., and the attendees file in to find a seat. “All rise, the honorable Judge Baumgartner is now presiding,” the bailiff announces. This is Drug Court, a room filled with ex-cons, probationers, misdemeanors and petty thugs, all brought here to recite a kind of oath, a piece of ritualized rehabilitation: Yes, I am an addict , chiming in unison.
The term “New Dope,” coined by the author Thomas Pynchon, refers to a peculiar kind of drug. “It’s the dope that finds you, apparently,” Pynchon writes. Similarly, but not exactly, Drug Court works on a mental level, helping addicts replace their addictions with rituals, replace chemical dependence with spiritual ecstasy. “The Steps can really work to change your life,” one graduate of the program says, “change the way you think, the way you see things.”
“Let me tell you what my concept of Drug Court is,” Judge Richard Baumgartner says. “In the criminal justice system everybody recognizes that substance abuse is a major driving force in the criminal activity itself.” Baumgartner has presided over the Drug Court proceedings ever since the program merged with the criminal court back in 2000.
“People become addicted to drugs around 13-14 years old,” Baumgartner says. “By the time they become young adults, they’re into major-hard drugs. And the only way to support that habit is to commit some kind of crime.”
The most common cliché is the man who, after losing his job and his family, begins to pawn everything he owns, leaving him completely destitute. Brad Cable played this role once. A police officer for 17 years before his addictions took hold, Cable says that he experienced a deep depression, which eventually caused other major problems. “That’s when I started getting high,” Cable explains. “I just gave up, started smoking crack.” Eventually, he began forging and washing checks. “When I got into Drug Court, I thought I could play this game, but I couldn’t,” Cable adds, “I relapsed one time and got sent to Steps House.”
Across the river in South Knoxville, about two dozen houses—almost visible from the window in Baumgartner’s office—sit, camouflaged within a quaint, aging neighborhood. The Step Houses, the oft-called “Homes of Unconditional Love,” take on an average of 100 men at any given time, a place for unfortunate men to stay as they attempt to piece their lives back together, step by step. (There are women in Drug Court, too, and there are all-female halfway houses. The majority of people in the rehabilitation programs, however, are male.)
There are three phases in the Drug Court program. In phase one, the attendant is required to go to three meetings with the Drug Court staff, attend three NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) sessions and complete several hours of community service each week. Then, as the attendant progresses, he’s given more responsibility, is required to attend fewer sessions and, when he reaches phase three, is responsible for co-facilitating group meetings and mentoring newcomers.
“What we’ve recognized,” Baumgartner says, “is that these people are a continuing cycle in the program. We can put them in jail for certain periods of time, but that doesn’t solve the problem. The purpose of Drug Court is to address the addiction.” But some critics feel that the Drug Court program creates another, equally damaging cycle, especially if the person is living in a halfway house, working to complete a 12-step program.
“I think Judge Baumgartner is a very good man,” says Doug Pickens, whose son was both in the Drug Court program and a resident at Steps House, Inc. “I think that drug court is a good program, but its inherent flaws are not conducive to people progressing through the program.”
Pickens’ son, Seth, was subject to random drug screens administered by both the court and the halfway-house supervisors. The randomness of the screenings, the very thing that makes a drug test reliable, made it difficult for Seth to hold any kind of steady employment to help pay his court fees and Steps House rent. “There aren’t too many jobs that’ll let you leave early several times each week [for a drug test],” Seth says. “There were days when I took three drug tests in a day. I’ve taken six drug tests in a week.” With each test costing between $30 and $50, there usually isn’t a whole lot left over for Seth to pay his treatment fees.
Proponents say that the toughness of the program is what makes it so effective. “[To progress in the program] you have to be current on all your court costs and drug screen fees—you have to pay for all your drug screens—and you have to at least complete the first three of the 12 steps,” Baumgartner explains. “We lose some people on the front end. But what we’ve found is, if we can keep them in the program for a year, we have a 93 percent success rate for those people. If we graduate people, 80 percent of those graduates remain crime-free. If you compare that to those coming out of the penitentiary, 65 percent of those people recommit.”
Nevertheless, numbers are not always consistent. Bob Garrett, executive director of Steps House, feels as though the national average of successful treatment, of all forms of rehab combined, lies between one and three percent; however, he’s quick to point out that Steps House, Inc. can boast a success rate that falls somewhere between 20 and 30 percent (50 to 60 percent if the client is kept at the house for more than six months). At the same time, Keith Farrar, the Steps House program director, feels that the success rate is actually higher than Garrett’s numbers would indicate, as long as the seed of hope gets planted in an addict’s head. Farrar’s attitude tends to reflect that of Baumgartner, who is wont to say that relapse is simply a part of recovery.
“If you can get them to be honest with you,” Pickens warns, “the failure rate of people in drug court is in the high 90 percentile. You enter the program, you don’t get out.” The cyclical nature of the Steps House and Drug Court programs are what worry Pickens, cycles that Garrett argues are essential to the program’s usefulness: “The mantra is… to keep your sobriety you got to give it away. If I help you up a step, you got to turn around and help another guy up.” The altruistic structure, the philosophy of reciprocal treatment, might exchange one addiction for another, according to Steps House graduate Michael Collins, one of the few graduates of the program who doesn’t sing in praise of the 12 steps. Of all the success stories who were interviewed, Collins is the only one who does not have any connection to Steps House, Inc. since completing the program.
“Their addiction now is AA,” Seth says about those who remain ardent supporters and practitioners of the 12-step philosophy. “They drink coffee and smoke maybe four packs a day.” Collins agrees: “It’s just a way to look like you’re treating alcoholism and addiction….True recovery is knowing how to quit on your own.”
Seth was first recommended to drug court and the Steps House after violating the conditions of his parole twice, once with small possession of a controlled substance and again by being drunk in public. Standing in Baumgartner’s courtroom, Seth was declared an addict. “Here’s where the problem starts,” Pickens says. “Baumgartner is not a drug counselor; he’s not a physician. But for him to just look over the bench at my son and say ‘You’re an addict’ is just wrong…. Just ’cause you’ve smoked marijuana or had a beer doesn’t mean you’re an addict.”
Seth had to pay $2,000 in retribution for the crime which initially put him on parole, yet while he was in the Steps program he paid over $1,200 in rent, over $1,000 for drug tests, $600 to the probation system and about $800 in court costs while living for just over a year in a Steps House, a punishment he feels was not fair for parole violation. “I once forgot a pen at group,” Seth reminisces, “and had to write a three-page report on the importance of bringing a pen. How do you write three pages on that?” Baumgartner, however, remains firm when it comes to the practices of Drug Court and the halfway houses. “If you can address the addiction and cure it,” he says, “then you can break the cycle of this reoccurring criminal activity.”
Seth eventually left the Steps House after he was given a random Breathalyzer test and failed. The test administrator, Keith Farrar, then told Seth to pack his things and get out. “His [Farrar’s] whole life revolves around the steps. He’s so brainwashed in that system,” Seth says. “I think the Steps House made him worse as a person.” Seth and his father immediately had a blood-alcohol test at Baptist Hospital, on which Seth scored a 7.0. A score of 100 and above is what indicates intoxication on this test; a 7.0, then, could be caused by something as ordinary as gargling Listerine. When Pickens brought the test results to Steps House, the decision didn’t change. “They said, ‘We don’t care what you got. He failed the test. We’re willing to keep him, but we’ll move him back to the beginning of the program.’” Seth declined, opting to forget the year he’d put into the steps program in favor of 7 and 1/2 months at West Tennessee State Penitentiary. “I don’t know anything about the blood-alcohol test,” Farrar insists. “Apparently he had some kind of problem, or he wouldn’t have been eligible for Drug Court in the first place.”
Now, there are some theories that pop up among those who’ve become disillusioned with the Drug Court and Steps House programs. The most salient being that Steps House intentionally keeps clients longer than they should in order to collect more money. With about 100 men in the program, Steps House can pull in $520,000 each year, as clients pay $110 a week for room and board. And with a low overhead resulting from cheap labor and inexpensive housing, the Steps House president, Patrick White, can make a good living. There is, at the very least, some rhyme and reason to this theory, considering that similar programs—the EM Jellinek Center, for example—have weekly rates as low as $65 and provide three meals a day.
“It would seem that we have a collaboration here between the court system—the so-called justice system—and a private, incorporated entity,” Pickens muses. “[The court] allows that entity to profit off the decisions of the court. Now, I don’t think that’s right…. They don’t care about us. They care about our money.”
Yet, ask any of the graduates who still stop by the Steps House on occasion or who come by Drug Court on Wednesdays—ask those who continue to participate in NA and AA—and they’ll say the same thing, Drug Court and Steps House saved my life . For all the men who have gone through the programs, the fact remains: they’ve been able to find some kind of peace in their lives. How meaningful that peace is remains open to question.
“I do think Judge Baumgartner means well,” Pickens says, adding: “I don’t think he knows what goes on in the program itself.”
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