Addiction is a disease.
This is the truth - an uncomfortable one, but the truth nonetheless.
I go to the Verde Valley jail every other week with Northern Arizona Restorative Justice (NARJ) to teach restorative practices to incarcerated men and women. I have again and again borne witness to the injustice of sentencing addicts to years of confinement. These are amazing people, who have lost their best to a disease, and who are in need of help. Addicts’ disease can sometimes place them in conflict with the law and general society. Incarceration is not an effective treatment for their malady. Sentencing addicted men and women to prison is like locking up everyone with cancer, PTSD, or hypertension.
Decades of medical research and practice have verified that addiction is a disease. The medical community is getting much better at treating addiction than they have been historically. They now see the symptoms and can distinguish them from addiction’s root causes, which include factors like trauma, complex psychiatric diagnoses, neurodiversity, neurochemical imbalances, genetic predisposition and chemical toxicity. The medical community also acknowledges attempts by the suffering addicts to self-medicate. They understand that only a disease - not a chosen way of life - would cause a mother to abandon a child or push people to destroy themselves. Addictions’ complexities, while not fully understood, affect the psychological, physiological, psychosocial and spiritual aspects of life.
A useful way to think about addiction, is that in the face of the physical, psychological and emotional challenges listed above, an addict experiences an erosion of genuine, positive, human connection (not always and not necessarily). They experience a moral breakdown in familial and social connectedness and struggle alone with their fear, trauma and anxiety.
Addiction, no matter what its cause and no matter what substances the addict uses, ruptures relationships, in the family first, and then more broadly.
Healing for an addict is impossible without healing those broken relationships and families.
It takes more than prison, more than our current treatment options, and more than campaigns against drugs and alcohol. Substances aren’t the problem. The problem is broken families, and moral and economic poverty.
Recovery work requires that addicts pay attention to their patterns of thought and behavior. Those Unhealthy patterns have their roots in having been learned by watching and participating in others ’unhealthy patterns, by trying to come to terms with trauma, mental illness, dysfunctional environments and other factors. Addiction is treated best by creating new and healthy connections, replacing those habitual and often unconscious patterns. But before a person can get there, The road to health can be long and require much effort on the part of the addict, their families, and the people who work alongside them.
A one-month treatment program is not going to heal years of abuse. Some people take years to heal, and some never fully heal. Society and addicts’ families’ patience can often wear thin with people who appear to be knowingly destroying themselves.
Our society is filled with fear and anxiety. The reasons for this are many. We lack trust, we over-think, we compare ourselves to others, over-categorize and judge.
The news shows daily stories of addicts being arrested for doing unthinkable acts. As a result, we have learned to fear this disease.
Fueled by fear and hyper-awareness of danger, many people in America are medicating for anxiety, and becoming unintentional addicts. The illicit and pharmaceutical drug industry are rich even in times of poverty.
While addicts do things that are hurtful to themselves and others, science shows that these men, women and kids are literally not in their right minds. Addiction rewires the brain in ways that cause addicts to see the world, and react to what they see, in ways that are at the very least unhealthy, sometimes deviant, and supremely wrong. Fortunately for all of us - for who hasn’t been affected by addiction in some way? - research and therapeutic practices show that the addicted brain can be rewired. Recovery requires that treatment occur in a place where fear can be turned into the opportunity to create love and peace.
The greatest contributor of addiction, and the fuel to millions of incarcerated individuals, is poverty. It is a poverty of moral structure and money. Poverty caused by a moral wound. It is often a broken relationship that leads to addiction. Moral poverty breeds broken connections. Broken connections create harm.
What is the value of healing a broken person, and a broken family?
We all know amazing people who have died from the disease of addiction.
What if we can save future lives from being lost in this way?
Restorative justice approaches addiction as healing broken relationships. We seek to encourage people who have caused harm to themselves and others, to take responsibility and repair the harm. Healing addiction requires repairing harm. This is a tremendous act of courage as true humility requires an addict to ask for help.
Asking for help is what the most successful people do. It is what happy and financially secure people do. It is a requirement for healthy relationships. Stable communities are those that decide to respond to the requests for help from those struggling with addiction. We need to be willing to offer support to those who have become aware of the damage their addictions are causing and know they cannot recover alone.
Helping those who need help is a community responsibility. We can't hope that someone else is going to do the difficult work of healing moral wounds of incredible trauma.
The addicts I have met in jail are a brilliant group of people, with tremendous potential to give back to society, if a restorative environment is created. They cannot, however, heal in the correctional system. The only way to restore them to our community is to get the community involved. After all, justice doesn't just happen. It is created.
The rights of many addicts are being completely stripped away.
Most people in our county jails are unable to afford bail. This is a violation of the 8th amendment.
These people cannot seek justice from jail. Some can hardly read or write. They have no defense and no way to restore themselves without being given support. They need to be back in the community, or in treatment, able to begin the process of healing the harm caused in their diseased state.
Ninety-seven per cent of those charged with a crime accept plea agreements because they are told if they don’t plead guilty, they will be given a harsher sentence. The public defender's office is overwhelmed with cases, and can't send their lawyers to visit every man or woman they are in public service to protect. They are drowning in a sea of addicts with no plan besides giving out more jail time or building more prisons.
This will never heal the brokenness.
Addicts need access to treatment centers. Arizona has huge amounts of land and vast amounts of financial resources to create an oasis of healing.
Let's say, conservatively, that 50% of the prison population are addicts in need of treatment. What if we diverted their wasted talents, sitting in a cage, into the talent needed to build this network of treatment centers. What if they were healed and trained? What if these men and women helped build this treatment network? Wouldn't that help repair the harm they have caused?
Real solutions exist with proper funding.
The budget for prisons in Arizona for 2019 is $1,175,219,700.
If only 50% of these funds were put towards rehabilitating addicts, $587,609,850 would go a long way towards creating thousands of restored addicts, felons and families.
The financial savings in terms of funds currently spent on welfare, on Medicaid, on our foster systems, our juvenile systems, and our prisons would be huge. More importantly, the addition of healthy, contributing citizens who know there are healthy ways to conquer fear and loneliness, would be incalculable.
I urge the communities of Arizona to recognize that our state demands better justice.
If our community adopts restorative practices with adults the way we have with our youth, we could see a 70% recidivism rate, turned into an 88% success rate.*
Restorative practices teach people how to repair harm, and how to forgive each other. Forgiveness will always bring grace and dignity to the human spirit. With it, we can heal the broken heart.
*NARJ has seen only 12% re-offense in our juvenile program conducted in partnership with Yavapai County Juvenile Courts. 88% of those who participate in restorative circles have not re-offended.
It's amazing when you step back and realize that you're part of something far greater than you.
That's something that Northern Arizona Restorative Justice has taught me.
I saw it in action today as I watched another group of Northern Arizona educators impassioned by principles they were learning.
Even on the third day of training, when given a break, the teachers and administrators couldn't help but talk about putting restorative practices to work in their schools.
The principal of Dr. Daniel Bright Elementary, Jessi, shared with me a story of why she loved the nature of this work. She told of a young girl who was very difficult in class, and who was exhibiting common signs of trauma.
The girl was disruptive. She was withdrawn and quick to react with a large range of behavior. She was hard to reach, but slowly and patiently, using restorative practices, this girl began to change.
It started with a focus on relationships. First, was a relationship with a therapy dog. Then a relationship with a teacher. Eventually, the impossible occurred as the girl connected with the principal she had once feared. Trust has slowly manifested with a patient focus on connecting and compassion.
The trauma was still evident in some behavior, but trust existed, where before, there had been none.
Trust had begun to heal the trauma.
Why are teachers talking about healing trauma?
And better yet, why are they excited about it?
Because that's a side effect of implementation of restorative principles!
That's not even the primary purpose of the policy changes that can be implemented from these principles.
Schools are seeing all sorts of benefits from changing from a punitive system of punishment, to a restorative system of proactive prevention.
Communicating more clearly
Ability to identify needs
Seeing the needs of others
Understand how to take responsibility
Taking a direct role in the justice process
Repairing harm when it occurs
Restoring broken relationships
If you're not familiar with the principles of restorative justice, download a copy for free on our website home page (narj.org).
Read through these 10 principles and begin to consider how they might change your life and those around you.
Restorative principles change everyone involved, as being a part of something greater than ourselves, makes us all greater.
“Healthy relationships are crucial for successful living.” Take this from a group of men who know unhealthy relationships. This group of inmates have been charged with crimes that impacted many people in their communities, their families, and ultimately, themselves.
I have come into Yavapai County Jail in Camp Verde, Arizona with Northern Arizona Restorative Justice (NARJ.org). I am a Board Member and restorative facilitator. I have facilitated hundreds of recovery and restorative circles.
This jail has over 100 volunteers who are allowed to meet with inmates. This facility is working to create programs that are beneficial in reducing recidivism and creating a safer community.
That is why Barry and I volunteer to meet with people incarcerated there. We want to see people restored. We want to create a dialogue around healing from trauma, addiction, and mental illness. We want to stop punishing sickness. Instead, we want to repair the harm these things cause.
The harm that these men had done as a result of their addictions, pathologies and mental illnesses, were what Barry, Janice and I, and this group of 12 men, were here to explore.
One might expect to be conned in a room filled with convicts.These men, though, are eager to tell the truth.
“What about repairing the harm?” Barry asked the group. “What are your thoughts on reparation? If we break down to the harm we have done to ourselves, and start with repairing that, we can move into forgiveness.” “We are here to look at the humanity.” he continued.
Barry talked to the group about forgiveness, and that concept felt very foreign inside these walls.
Some of these men had done some horrible things. They had a real hard time understanding how to move into forgiveness.
Barry explained to the group that he cares about who these men have hurt and how they can repair the harm and move forward. He explained how we have seen children, men, and women, successfully move forward after horrible harm has happened in their lives with the assistance of restorative justice.
“What’s that AA term? Something about a moral inventory?” I asked the group.
“Fearless” one inmate said.
“Fearless and searching” another finished.
“Fearless”, I repeated. “It takes that type of look at yourself.” I reminded everyone. “I hear this desire for something different, but part of that process is looking at the mistakes that you have made”.
“How would you go about repairing?” I asked again, referring everyone to the harm they have caused, and the harm they have themselves suffered.
One guy who described his pattern of explosive anger responded, “To try to change my environment, and change my outlook on it instead of going right to rage when I feel she is doing something to me. I feel like I am being betrayed at that time. So I learned that about myself today. Maybe I need to step outside of the box, and go outside, instead of saying hurtful words.”
This man bore the wounds of a man who had “been let down by everybody”. And he realized he had only given in to his anger because “I had been hurt.”
I asked the group to imagine “What would it look like to share and to acknowledge the feelings of being hurt? Now I know I’m asking this to a bunch of gangsters...” the group laughed. “and we don’t talk about being hurt, but underneath a lot of these…”
“It’s like a kid. I act like a kid” someone interrupted.
“Totally. But a kid is screaming out because they’re hurt. And when we have the awareness that says, ‘okay I’m lashing out and I want to smash something because I’m hurt’, what would it look like for you to acknowledge and say ‘I’m hurt. I’m feeling hurt’”.
“I AM feeling hurt.” the man said, and he publicly acknowledged a hurt he had never before had the courage to share. He also learned to recognize what it is to feel hurt, as he mentioned “I don’t know how to distinguish that right now”. And most importantly, he saw a way out. He saw a way that he could address this old pattern in a new way.
The whole group saw it.
This group would later acknowledge that they had “never seen anything like this.”
I’ve seen a lot of circles, and I had never seen one quite like this, either..
“Were you scared to say that you were hurt?” another man asked.
“A lot of times, I feel like, ‘You should know’” the man emoted. He had a common misconception among men. He thought that his wife knew what he was thinking and feeling. The foolishness of this expectation was lost on no one.
“I heard forgiveness” another man spoke up. “...you know...ummm...I’m in here...first of all because of what I was doing....but partially, what helped me get in here is somebody told on me. Honest to God, I came in here and I was angry about that, and then I realized, you know, I was praying, and I was reading my Bible, and I started realizing, you know what, first of all, if I wasn’t doing what I was doing, no one could have told on me. I also realized that I need to forgive that person that wore a wire on me. It wasn’t necessarily for him. It was for myself. I didn’t want to walk around with that anger. It takes a lot of energy and I don’t want that burden, you know”.
“I’m looking at 15 years,” the man continued. “Not good. But ultimately, my relationships have gotten better. I’m in a safe spot. I’m out of my addiction...I’m not saying I’m happy. But something had to happen for me. Ultimately, I want to be forgiven. I want mercy. Because I have done harm and I’m not innocent here. I want to practice forgiveness and loving people and trying to be the best person I can be.”
Janice, the inmate coordinator of treatment programs, spoke up, “I’ve heard a lot of people say that they were rescued, not arrested.”
I’ve heard stories of people being rescued by going to prison. But I’ve also seen the side effects of arrest and imprisonment, and know that many of those imprisoned are lost to destruction and addiction. I've seen fear on the faces of community members and the pain of victims. Neither victims nor offenders; not to mention our communities, are restored by our current justice system that relies on punishment, not restoration.
What would it look like for our community to create justice and restoration for all involved?
That is one of the many questions I leave this jail with every time I visit.
I know that restorative circles are a part of the solution. But they are only a part.
There are other circles that must overlap to create connection and healing. Healing harm is always going to be a community exercise in forgiveness and restoration.
You’ve probably seen the headlines that have laid out a few of the failures of our current justice system and they can be absolutely blood boiling.
“School bus driver who raped 14-year-old will not go to prison.”
“Man Gets No Prison Time For Torturing Teenage Girl, Holding Her In a Dog Cage”
“Innocent man released after 30 years in prison”
It’s not a new issue, and it’s one we have all contributed to. Wait, hold on, how have we contributed to this?
The confused justice system is partially an act of slow changes that have conflicting goals. We have millions of opposing forces working against each other in a nation of individuals who can’t agree on what justice really looks like. Retributive justice, restorative justice, and individual ideals of justice are fighting against each other in a system filled with adversaries that have created conflicting principles of justice.
There is the ever popular, retributive, harsh on crime, camp that calls for longer prison stays and mandatory sentences. The comments section of crime articles are filled with the beliefs of retribution. Punishment is their mantra and they come to inflict pain. “Hang ‘em high”, “Rot in hell”, and “throw away the key” are phrases thrown around in desires rooted in natural selection. We are selecting who can continue to live in our society. And who can’t. By removing people from society, we are, in ways, cutting off their ability to repair the harm that has been caused.
The natural consequences of natural selection is destruction.
The moral and actual harm that is caused by acts of destruction, are often responded to by creating more destruction. We destroy our way of life and freedom, by creating fear and anxiety. It is the proverbial equivalent to bombing our way to safety. The more bombs that drop, the less safe anyone actually feels.
Even with the brokenness of the justice system, we are slowly creating a slightly safer society. Some of this safety can be attributed to the incarceration of people who commit violence and harm, but not as much as we would like to think.
Incarceration has about a 20-30% success rate in creating a future where a person commits no future harm. Incarceration only produces a satisfactory outcome for victims 50% or less of the time. Incarceration also has the side effect of creating a breakdown in the family and moral structure. This creates further harm in the community as children of incarcerated men and women are sometimes 7 times more likely to themselves become involved in creating their own harm and ending up in prison. Violence, addiction, and other “punishable offenses” are not repaired best by punishment.
Punishment creates a negative feedback loop that perpetuates further harm. Punishment creates fear, and fear is a horrible motivator. Fear breaks down the community and creates an us vs. them mentality, one of the most basic elements of the psychology of natural selection.
Human beings love having an enemy. Nothing creates enemies better than punishing each other.
Tim Kreider, in his book “We Learn Nothing” states, “The truth is, there are not two kinds of people. There’s only one: the kind that loves to divide up into gangs who hate each other’s guts. Both conservatives and liberals agree among themselves, on their respective message boards, in uncannily identical language, that their opponents lack any self-awareness or empathy, the ability to see the other side of an argument or to laugh at themselves. Which would seem to suggest that they’re both correct...
Let me propose that if your beliefs or convictions matter more to you than people—if they require you to act as though you were a worse person than you are—you may have lost perspective.”
A soon as we create an enemy, that enemy enters a fight of life and death. They fight for survival. Their life becomes an existence of fight or flight. It is often the same for the victims of crimes. Many people walk away from traumatic events with the wounds of PTSD. Trauma can create a pattern of trauma. As the old adage goes, ‘hurting people; hurt people’. The more we hurt people who have hurt other people, the more we prevent real healing from occurring.
Responsible justice looks to hold people responsible for their actions in a way that looks to restore the harm that they caused. This requires the involvement of the community. It requires the participation of the people who created the harm, the people who were affected by that harm, and others who are willing to hold space for healing and justice to occur. Justice is a participatory activity. It requires that the community show up to look to create restoration instead of just punishment.
The courts deal in lines of law and sentencing guidelines that take many factors into consideration for sentencing. These algorithms determine if someone should serve 1 or 10 years. What these policies and procedures fail to create is a pathway for restoring the harm caused to the community. Only the community can communicate and create the type of justice that looks at ways to repair harm that only those involved can know and understand.
We first have to confront our natural desire to hurt the offender. It is, after all, natural.
It is a part of the process of healing trauma. Anger is a part of the process. The process towards justice is messy and vulnerable. When I conduct restorative circles with Northern Arizona Restorative Justice, I sit down with families and community members who have hurt each other. There is always a history of pain and anger. We explore how to use the conflict as an opportunity. We look at how to heal the harm collectively. What if that anger could be directed towards a purpose of creating real safety and peace?
Bringing the community to connect together to settle and resolve disputes requires agreed upon rules. Right now the rules themselves are at conflict. Most communities have begun to create some form of community justice or restorative justice. People in these communities are often seeking treatment options and restorative measures for people who suffer from addiction, broken moral structure, and are prone to commit crimes. Many are non profit organizations which seek to practice and implement the principles of restorative justice in a manner outside the courts. Restorative principles have taken root in schools, corporate negotiations, and criminal justice. Some local and state courts have adopted and begun to practice restorative justice.
The success rate in some places that have implemented these practices has been 85%!
Some of the reasons we live in a safer society is that we are moving toward a level of transparency and surveillance. We have created increased security in all fashions of our life. We have increased police force, access to support networks, healthcare, mental health treatment, as well as volunteer organizations that often do untold amounts of good in creating safety in our communities. We as a society, have become great at creating safety. But we are often stuck in two opposing paradigms, where we are expected to heal and hurt at the same time.
The retributive camp has created a prison system filled with 3 million men and women who are often serving extraordinarily long sentences for drug related crimes. Many prison sentences make no sense through a view of true justice.
We can all agree that there is a need for prisons. But even these places should be humane. And the application of prison sentences should be taken into consideration with studies that demonstrate that prison is not effective at healing people. It is effective at harming people. After 3 years in prison, irreparable harm begins to take place for those in incarceration. Administrative segregation and solitary confinement create devastating effects on the people who undergo these forms of torture. There is no healing that comes with days alone in a dirty cell, chained and shackled for showers, and able only to walk in a slightly larger cage for a few short minutes every 2 days. There is no healing and correction that takes place in removing the humanity from even the halls of reformation.
We knew all of this back in the time period where reformation and punishment were a huge fad. We created reformatories where people were sent for healing and instead were abused and tortured. Yet we have now created more efficient machinery of punishment, and we expect that the problems with this model have changed.
The hard on crime camp has created an efficient legal slave trade (the words of Harvard professor, William J. Stuntz) where people’s lives are traded and negotiated on by lawyers in backroom deals. 97% of all criminal case filings will never see the open courtroom where men and women from the community can help create justice. To be clear, that means, 97 out of every 100, people charged with a crime will have the fate of their future determined by lawyers who make a career from criminalization. People's lives are determined daily in numbers and figures, stats, and promotions. Again, we all contribute to the creation of this type of justice.
Our desire to punish offenders, give victims retribution, rehabilitate and create safety for the public, all great intentions, have led to the creation of a justice system that is confused and struggling to find an identity.
What kind of justice do we, as a people, really want to see in America?
What does real justice, for everyone, really look like to you?
That is the question that restorative justice looks to answer, and the question I will leave you to ponder. What does justice really look like in your community? I hope you will connect with your community to work to create justice in the world around you as best as you can.
The justice may not be perfect, but when we work together to create justice, we work towards creating a more perfect union.