Addressing root causes of criminal behaviour key to helping clients

Treatment programs ‘absolutely fantastic’ tool if applied in the right cases

Addressing root causes of criminal behaviour key to helping clients

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Mike Cook, a criminal defence lawyer at SCVC Law in Winnipeg, MB, has been in this line of work for 30 years. He’s seen street drugs of choice go from a mix of Talwin and Ritalin, to powder cocaine in the ‘90s which morphed to crack cocaine around 2000, then to crystal meth in 2010 and fentanyl coming on the scene soon after that.

“I know my business and I know addictions — I’ve got a front row seat,” Cook says, estimating 80% of the files he handles involve drug, alcohol or gambling addictions and often co-occurring mental health issues as the base cause for criminal behaviour.

With any client, Cook’s first step is to discuss their legal options with them and the one option he always wants to talk about is treatment, such as that offered by EHN Canada’s nationwide network of facilities. If a person goes into therapy because they want help, “these programs are absolutely fantastic,” Cook notes.

"They look at some of the root causes of criminal behaviour — and I’ve never found a client who wakes up one day and says, ‘You know what, I’m going to get high and rob a bank,’” he says. “It’s spawned out of financial difficulty coupled with the ingestion of some intoxicant, so one’s thinking gets very confused.”

Whether treatment is on the table or not depends on the client. Some maintain they’re not guilty or don’t want to plead guilty and want a trial, so Cook will set a trial date. But others are repentant. They know they’ve done wrong and want to accept the sentence of the court, and it’s with those people Cook says, “let’s talk about putting the best case forward we can come the day of your sentencing.”

“I always tell the client going to a program has two benefits — one, it will help me help you in court because the judge will see you acknowledge your wrongdoing by entering a plea of guilty and you’re doing something about the deeper source of your actions. The other thing it’ll help you with is after this file is closed, getting yourself into recovery will help you for the rest of your life.”

The problem is always sincerity, Cook notes. Why do they say they want a program? Often it’s simply because they don’t want to go to the Winnipeg Remand Centre. He’s seen it many times — a client swears up and down they want help and they get into a program, the van pulls up to the treatment centre to drop them off, the doors open . . . and the person books it up the street.

“They had no desire for treatment, they just wanted an escape route,” Cook says, adding he’s not so naive as to think all clients truly want to change — some just want the letter saying they completed treatment because it looks good in court.

But the programs aren’t easy to get into. Most commonly, if a client wants to go the treatment route, “we do bail, contact the programs, send the director a copy of the client’s police report and record, the client fills out an application and then the director decides if they’re a good fit” — and Cook does his own screening where he doesn’t offer programs unless the client seems sincere and is motivated to complete it. Once  treatment has started, Cook also keeps in touch with the client and the program director. When did they start and stop the program? What modules did they complete? How active were they? Are they incorporating what theyre learning or just going through the motions? Essentially, Cook wants to know if the growth is genuine because otherwise it’s a waste of time for all involved, not to mention it takes a valuable seat away from someone who truly wants to change their life.

Cook knows first-hand the value of these treatment programs through a client named Steve. Every time Steve got in trouble — whether it be for drug dealing, robbery, domestic violence or driving impaired — Cook would ask his client: Is this the time now to get you into a program? And every time Steve gave the common excuses — I don’t have a problem, I can stop when I want, they have the problem — until the time the judge denied bail. Back in the courtroom cell, Steve “kicked a chair over, used quite a few expletives and then said: Maybe I should try that program.”

Cook was able to do a bail review and got Steve into a one-year program, where he really put in the work for recovery. Cook went to Steve’s graduation because he was so impressed with his progress and now calls him “a shining beacon of success.”

“He’s a completely changed man,” says Cook, adding he often has Steve speak to other clients considering treatment. “Every time Steve’s mom sees me, she hugs me and cries and says you saved my boy’s life. But I say no, I opened up a door. Steve willingly, of his own volition, walked through it and the credit goes to him and that program.”

Though success stories like Steve’s are unfortunately few and far between, it hasn’t shaken Cook’s belief that every person has the ability to change their life if they sincerely want to, and he says he will never give up on any of his clients.

“I’ve represented some people for 25 years, they’re in and out of jail, but I always say to the judge — we can’t give up on them. Let’s get them some help if they’re willing to do it.”


Mike Cook can be contacted at [email protected]

For more information on EHN Canada’s inpatient, outpatient, and online treatment options for substance use and mental health disorders, visit www.ehncanada.com.

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