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Challenging a State Law that Jails Alcoholics


Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center is suing the state in federal court to get rid of an old law that allows courts to label people as habitual drunkards and to lock them up for a year if they’re found in possession of alcohol.  Sandy Hausman has that story.

Since 2007, more than a thousand Virginians have been labeled habitual drunkards in court, allowing police to arrest them if they’re caught with beer, wine or hard liquor.

“A mere sip of alcohol would put them in jail for a year,” according to Mary Frances Charlton, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center.  She says this law flies in the face of modern thinking about addiction.

“This is taking alcoholism, widely accepted as a disease by the medical community, and treating it as a criminal justice issue rather than as a public health issue.”

And it’s an expensive approach for taxpayers, because people who are homeless and alcoholic can be locked up at considerable expense for long periods of time.

"They do some time.  They get out.  They’re suffering from alcoholism, so one slip up, which is almost inevitable given the difficulty in dealing with alcoholism for someone who is homeless, the minute they slip up, they’re back in jail," Charlton explains.

What’s more the law doesn’t really define a habitual drunkard, and it creates a new class of people who are treated differently than those charged with public intoxication – a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine.  Charlton adds that this approach makes it even harder for people with a drinking problem to recover.

"The personal cost of this for individuals – particularly homeless, alcoholic individuals is very high.," Charlton says. "They’re losing social services.  They’re losing familial ties, and they’re even losing jobs in many cases."

Finally, the Legal Aid Justice Center points out that because being branded a habitual drunkard is a civil proceeding, poor people are not entitled to a free lawyer as they would be for a criminal charge.