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Addiction. Not just for Alcoholics

Criminal defense lawyers don’t always meet people at their finest.  Typically it’s quite the opposite.  But over the years I’ve learned a few things about people.  Most people who find themselves in trouble aren’t bad people.  They’ve made a mistake perhaps.  But they are generally pretty good souls.  And I’ve also learned to look to the “why.”  In other words, why did they make the mistake in the first place?

Addiction to some substance is behind many mistakes and many crimes.  Courts are learning to deal with this by creating special programs to help those who have problems.  I won’t get into the “why” behind the substance addiction.  But generally consider that the middle stages in a 12 step recovery program look closely into this question.  Why drink or use drugs?

But what about other types of addiction, not related to substances?  Consider, for example, someone who steals from a store.  Every now and then we encounter a basic shoplifting case where someone stole because of basic need.  This is the “Les Misérables” theft.  Steal a loaf of bread so the family can eat.

I’ve found, though, that most theft cases aren’t about need at all. In fact, people often explain in confidence that they don’t really know why they took what they took.  They certainly didn’t need the thing.  They didn’t really even want it.  One person stole thousands of dollars worth of Hummel dolls from a high end shop.  This person didn’t even collect them. Nor did the person want them.

Consider further the person who steals thousands from an employer.  They often don’t have anything to show for the money.  Their spouses didn’t even notice a change in the family budget.  The money was wasted on things they didn’t need.

At court, the prosecutors and victims often attribute this behavior to greed.  Or they may just assume the person is fundamentally bad.  I’m no psychologist, but there is clearly something more to this.  We get to see the remorse.  The look in the eye when the light bulb comes on.  It’s a lot like dealing with an addict.  They know it’s wrong.  They know it’s bad.  They want to stop.  They just can’t.  It takes a “rock bottom” moment.  Typically it takes getting caught.

The question then is what do they do about it.  Once there is a rock bottom moment, they can start to heal.  Just like an alcoholic, they can turn things around.  They can get help.  They can admit their problem.  They can try to make amends.  And perhaps most important, they can figure out the “why.”

So what’s this got to do with criminal defense?  Well, we believe in helping people with their problems.  That means more than just legal research and arguing in court.  That means getting to the heart of the “why.”  And guess what?  That just might give us an edge in court.

See we don’t always have a magic wand that makes legal problems go away.  Sometimes people are flat out guilty and the prosecutor can prove.  This doesn’t mean they don’t get a defense.  This means that we have to change our approach.  Now we shift to mitigation.  We try to figure out the best way to help people figure out their issues.  Now we can offer something legitimate to the prosecutor and the court.  It doesn’t necessarily mean people get away free.  But it just may make the difference between probation and prison.  Or between diversion and conviction.  But even absent that difference, it just may make sure we don’t ever see that person in court again.

Too many criminal defense lawyers are one dimensional.  They may be great at research.  They may know every subsection of every law.  But if they can’t see the big picture, these things fall short.  We represent people, not files.  And the law deals with people, not cases.  Pounding the table and screaming about an issue we can’t win is as senseless as the crime itself.

So more and more we are encouraging psychological assessments and counseling.  Sure it may help the case, but, as Bill Cosby once said, “you may learn something before it’s done.”

“Hey, hey, hey!”

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