I can’t count how many times I’ve stood next to someone being sentenced for personal drug possession. Some are just unlucky, ocassional users, but many more are addicts. They’ve tried to stop using meth or heroine or whatever other drug has them in its grip, but they can’t. They have periods of sobriety. They get their lives together, only to relapse when the next big tragedy comes along. When they’re at their worst, they always seem to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
I’ve noticed recovering addicts like to stress the importance of living one day at a time, of not letting setbacks cause them to give up and ruin all of their progress. Tomorrow’s a new day. Learn from today’s mistakes and move on. Never give up. Even the most inspirational success stories are filled with relapses. Rich addicts can check themelves into fancy rehab facilities each time they hit rock bottom. Poor addicts mostly find themselves in shackles. Getting clean is a process, and typical addicts amass drug priors before finally conquering their demons.
Priors often result in enhanced sentences. They also bother prosecutor and judges. “Your client just isn’t learning his/her lesson,” they say. Judges and prosecutors shake their heads and point out all of the chances the addict had. Everyone pretends to know how hard it is to get clean, but when it comes to sentencing, it’s always about priors. Sometimes, it makes me think about a demon most people are likely to understand a lot better.
As a society, we are hardly the pinnacle of fitness. Americans are fat, and lawyers are no exception. All of the lawyers reading this can probably name dozens of seriously overweight fellow members of the bar. Many might be prosecutors and judges. You probably know attorneys who fill their office fridges with frozen lean cuisine dinners. They read weight loss books, have gym memberships they rarely use, and jump on every new appetite suppresant that hits the market. They clearly want to lose weight, but they struggle with it. They eat salads at lunch, but they go home and devour a pint of ice cream after a tough day at work. They can’t quit eating, or they can’t commit to exercising enough. I’m sure all of you know the type. You’ve probably seen many of those who did manage to lose a lot of weight fall off the wagon and gain it all back.
There are judges and prosecutor who fit that description. In fact, some of the judges and prosecutors I see throwing priors at my clients and shaking their heads in disgust at what they apparently view as weakness fit that description to a tee. When they act like my clients could’ve just quit and callously flaunt drug priors in their face, I want to analogize relapse and the resulting priors to weight loss. I’ve never done it because I can’t seem to figure out a way to say it to them without being extremely insulting.
I think about my clients’ lives. Some were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Maybe they were addicted to crack too. They were molested as a kid or beaten within an inch of their life by their dads every time they messed up. They turned to drugs to escape a miserable life of pain and suffering, and they got caught. They tried to stop using. They really tried. They were poor and uneducated and alone in their struggle. They got sober, but they relapsed when their mom died, they lost their house, or they found out they’d gotten hepatitis or HIV or who knows what from years of drug use.
It absolutely disgusts me when overweight prosecutors and judges act like prior drug convictions are anything other than understandable relapses, just like the ones I’m sure they’ve had. The client’s trying to break a crack addiction after a life of hell, and someone who makes a good salary and can’t quit eating donuts is throwing moments of weakness in his face?
I think it’s a good analogy. I’d love to use it, but the people who deserve to hear it would sooner have me held in contempt than take a good look at themselves and feel some empathy. It’s sad for them, but it’s sadder for my clients. If more people thought about relapse and priors as analogous to weight management, something they’re far more likely to relate to, I think I’d see a lot fewer aggravated drug sentences.