Faculty Spotlight: Sara Gordon

Friday, March 30, 2018
Sara Gordon, Associate Professor of Law

Which of your recent books or articles should I read?
My recent research examines drug and other specialty courts, which were originally intended to divert people with criminal charges out of the criminal justice system and allow them to instead receive treatment for an underlying mental illness or substance use disorder. One article that I’d recommend is About a Revolution: Towards Integrated Treatment in Drug & Mental Health Courts, which is forthcoming in the North Carolina Law Review. In this paper, I examine the structure of specialty courts, which often segregate defendants into drug court or mental health court based on the crime that led to their arrest. Many of these individuals, however, do not just suffer from a substance use disorder or a mental health disorder; instead, many have a “co-occurring disorder.” I argue that this segregated specialty court model often fails to provide integrated treatment for the multiple disorders a defendant might present, and further stigmatizes drug and alcohol use disorders.
Another recent piece, The Use and Abuse of Mutual Support Groups in Drug Courts, 2017 Illinois L. Rev. 1503, examines the gap between what we know about appropriate treatment for the disease of addiction, and the treatment received by individuals who are ordered into treatment as a condition of participation in drug court. Many drug courts, for instance, will not accept participants who are undergoing medication-assisted treatment for addiction and substance abuse, partly because of a persistent belief that medication-assisted treatment allows individuals to simply replace one substance with another. Yet these medications have been shown to be safe and highly effective for many people and participants in drug courts should be permitted to use this evidence-based treatment.
What's the most important thing you are working on right now?

If I told you that sugar won’t make your kids hyper, would you believe me? And what does that have to do with drug courts? Despite overwhelming scientific support for the efficacy of medication-assisted treatment for addiction, many drug courts are reluctant to embrace these pharmacological treatments because of concerns about “addiction substitution.” Ordinary decision-makers are similarly reluctant to believe new information when it contradicts their existing beliefs. Sugar does not make kids hyper, but you may find it difficult to believe that if you have always understood that it does. My current work focuses on these “sticky myths” and the reluctance of legal decision-makers to embrace challenges to their longstanding ideas or practices, even in the face of credible scientific evidence suggesting that the old approaches might be incorrect or misinformed. As a more serious example of this phenomenon, most people think that fingerprint evidence connecting a defendant to a crime scene is infallible and that such evidence always produces the correct conclusions. Yet fingerprint identifications have significant error rates and the first appropriately designed study of the validity and reliability of latent print evidence wasn’t conducted until 2011! Like my work on the legal system’s need for a more contemporary and evidence-based approach to addiction, this project focuses on the disconnect between what we believe about forensic evidence and what has been established by the scientific community, and on the resistance of people to believe new information that contradicts or disproves the things they have always assumed to be true.

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