How do we create laws and legal systems that protect, rather than punish, people with mental illness? And how can we break down the many barriers facing people with substance use disorders who are involved in the criminal justice system?
Those are some of the questions that guide Professor Sara Gordon’s research on the intersection between psychology, mental health and the law.
This month, the Allard School of Law welcomed Professor Gordon as an associate professor. She’ll be teaching courses including Criminal Law, Mental Health Law, Evidence, and Law and Psychology. Before joining Allard Law, Professor Gordon was previously a professor of law at the UNLV Boyd School of Law in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she also served as associate dean, academic affairs, and most recently, as interim dean.
In this Q&A, Professor Gordon discusses her latest research and what she’s looking forward to most at Allard Law.
What are your research interests?
My research considers how psychology and mental health intersect with the criminal justice system. Research in the medical and psychological fields is rapidly evolving, but many lawyers, judges and even legal scholars have limited medical and psychological knowledge. Criminal justice institutions consequently make decisions based on outdated ideas — or no ideas at all — often to the detriment of criminal defendants. My research helps fill this gap through careful attention to the state of scientific and psychological literature.
One of the most significant issues facing the legal system as it attempts to deal with individuals with substance use disorders is the continuing lack of understanding that addiction is a brain disease, one with a biological basis like cancer or diabetes. This is a problem for any individual with an addiction who finds herself involved with the criminal justice system, but it’s an especially difficult problem for individuals who become involved with specialty courts such as drug courts.
Many people still believe that addiction is a type of character flaw or weakness, and this attitude is reflected in the types of addiction treatment we are willing to provide to people, both within and outside of the justice system.
In the United States, drug courts were originally intended to divert people with criminal charges out of the criminal justice system and to allow them to instead receive treatment. However, many drug courts don’t refer participants to evidence-based treatment programs, and sometimes even disqualify participants who are receiving that treatment. For example, many drug courts won’t accept participants who are undergoing medication-assisted treatment for addiction and substance use — treatments that have been shown to be safe and highly effective. Many people still believe that addiction is a type of character flaw or weakness, and this attitude is reflected in the types of addiction treatment we are willing to provide to people, both within and outside of the justice system.
Tell us about your current research projects.
My recent work focuses on addiction and how the legal system treats people with addiction, and more specifically on the experiences of individuals with substance use disorders who enter a drug or other specialty court in the United States. My research suggests that while we have learned a lot about the appropriate treatment of substance use disorder, much of that knowledge hasn't made its way into the medical community, and it certainly hasn't reached most drug courts or drug court judges.
I see this work as a vehicle to educate judges and court personnel about the disease of addiction and the best treatment options. I’m working on a project that considers how harm-reduction strategies, which seek to reduce the negative health, social and legal consequences associated with drug use, might be better incorporated into specialty courts and the treatment these courts provide.
I’d like to explore more deeply the idea of whether specialty courts, with their home in the criminal justice system, are an appropriate way to approach the treatment of addiction in the first place.
I’m also researching Canada’s approach to specialty courts and plan to incorporate a comparative analysis into my future work. There is a large body of literature linking mental and physical health outcomes with the social inequalities associated with determinants of health, including poverty and the racism that stems from colonialism. I hope to further explore this research and the experience of Indigenous people in specialty courts in Canada, with an eye toward the impacts of colonialism, to better inform specialty courts about the best course of treatment for these populations.
Finally, I’d like to explore more deeply the idea of whether specialty courts, with their home in the criminal justice system, are an appropriate way to approach the treatment of addiction in the first place. This criminal model of mental health treatment, including treatment for substance and alcohol use disorders, continues to isolate and stigmatize the disease of addiction. If we are to remove that stigma and treat individuals with substance use disorder and mental health disorders in parity with individuals with other diseases, the very existence of the specialty court model itself should perhaps be reconsidered.
What do you look forward to most about being a part of the Allard community?
I’m thrilled to be joining the Allard community and to be living in beautiful Vancouver. I moved here from the desert — it’s 44 degrees in Las Vegas as I write this! — so I’ve been taking advantage of the lovely weather to explore the city and I’ve been spending a lot of time outside.
As we approach the new school year, I think I’m most excited to start working with Allard students. I’ve served in a variety of administrative roles for the last several years and I’m really looking forward to being back in the classroom full-time.