Guest blogger Judge Jamey H. Hueston talks about the role meditation can play in offender substance abuse recovery and a range of legal disputes…

Meditation was offered by the Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court 15 years ago before reaching the mainstream popularity enjoyed today. Today, scientific research supports meditation which DTC adopted by intuition – that meditation helps offenders relax, breathe, clear your mind, reduce cravings. DTC meditation is simple and follows the ABC rule: accept, breathe, calm. “Mindfulness in 5-Steps” flyers are also located on trial tables and distributed to participants-in DTC and in the traditional courtroom.

Baltimore DTC Program

DTC participant William besieged the judge “I lost everything to drugs; my apartment, health, car, job, and family – I need help.” After 20 years abusing heroin William cannot stop his daily ingestion of the poison. His daily habit exceeds $150 and his criminal record contains extensive drug and related convictions.

The DTC population faces significant challenges: single parent families, teenage pregnancy, generational drug usage, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and lead poisoning. Offenders enter DTC suffering from drug withdrawal, poor nutrition, little education, unemployment and hopelessness. Mental health, trauma and physical issues also routinely present. William, like many DTC participants, lacks skills to remain drug free and to pursue a responsible life. He is physically, mentally and spiritually depleted.

Treatment will help William understand the effects of addiction. DTC will locate housing, education, job training and services to address problems that contribute to his addiction. But assistance cannot succeed if William is unable to concentrate on recovery due to a drug-affected mental blur and while preoccupied with survival. Additionally, addicts struggle moment by moment with the compulsion to use drugs. “It’s called the monkey on our back,” stated Derrick, to justify returning to the streets, putting cravings before recovery and failing to seek.

Baltimore DTC Meditation History

Meditation started at DTC’s housing facilities with Janet, a meditation specialist, instructing participants to close their eyes or to gaze softly in front of them, sit comfortably, breathe deeply and accept thoughts without judgment or expectation.

Janet also taught meditation in the Detention Center’s treatment-acupuncture program behind a maze of locking gates, sterile cinderblock hallways and joyless atmosphere. Imposing steel doors in the windowless treatment room and stares from twenty men in standard orange jump suit greeted her. Some showed disgust with this distinguished woman who presumed to teach life lessons to this hardened population, while others sported weary looks, anticipating yet another hour of boredom.

After the first session participants shared personal and emotional experiences. One participant claimed that the class helped to move thoughts of using drugs from his mind. Another shared regret at leaving his young son as he chased his drug habit, stating,” I saw myself playing with my son, admitting my mistakes and I feel that I reached him somehow.”

Over time, the inmates opened with surprising frankness expressing emotions and confiding guilty feelings from abandoning their families to drugs and being scared to face the streets. The overwhelming majority of these inmates, and even jail guards, looked forward to Janet’s visits.

Eventually, encouraging meditation became a steady diet at DTC hearings and one gentleman recounted that meditating while on the bus to purchase drugs quelled his urge. He spontaneously faced the courtroom audience waiting their turn before the judge and announced, “This meditation is some serious business -it really helps.”


Mindfulness meditation is the art of being present in the moment, freeing the mind from constant inner talk which often comes from anxiety, shame, poor quality of life, and low self-worth. Meditation trains the mind to gently focus on now, to achieve calm, composure and tranquility.

Meditation has been practiced throughout the world for thousands of years. Millions of people meditate in the United States and major corporations embrace meditation to promote stress reduction and employee well-being. Meditation is also in educational settings including law, medical and public schools to help students achieve calm, and manage trauma.

Research indicates that meditation improves psychological and physical health problems, such as anxiety, blood pressure, pain, depression, stress, insomnia, smoking, physical or emotional symptoms associated with chronic illnesses, i.e., heart disease, HIV/AIDS, cancer, migraines and PTSD. Additionally, a study in JAMA Psychiatry revealed that mindfulness relapse prevention significantly lowered risk of relapse to drugs and heavy drinking compared to standard treatment.

One need not practice meditation for years to achieve benefits. Meditating 30 minutes daily for eight weeks shows changes in learning, memory, emotion regulation, and perspective (Hozel et al, 2011)

Effect of Drugs on the Brain

Everything looks like a nail to carpenters who carry only hammers and DTCs welcome techniques to help participants listen to instructions, quell cravings and focus on treatment. Meditation is one of these tools and research supports that meditation improves concentration and alertness, to enhance and reduce relapse. Meditation aids participants to engage during the program’s early stages, sustain through the arduous program regime and maintain recovery after completion.

Meditation in traditional/mainstream courts

DTC’s accommodates a fraction of drug offenders entering the system, leaving traditional courts to find alternatives for those remaining. Meditation is a cogent strategy that helps diminish ailments and behavioral issues. It is free, easy and not the exclusive property of DTCs.

Litigants in neighborhood disputes, land lord tenant squabbles and even domestic violence matters also can be appropriate candidates – there really is no limit.

Parties may come to court angry, feeling emotionally mistreated or overwhelmed at the hand of their adversaries. At times, they are too invested, overcome or upset by their problems to hear the position of the opposing side or the wisdom of care providers.

In the right case with the right party I gently suggest they try meditation, describe that it will help them achieve greater calmness and clarity, briefly review the scientific support, distribute “Mindfulness in 5-Steps” flyers and share that I would not suggest the practice without having done so myself.

I pick the parties and circumstances that I feel would benefit and be open to the experience and almost all are grateful then and later one occasions when they return to court at subsequent hearings.

The benefits of meditation are plentiful but it does not replace treatment–it provides a powerful adjunct to it. Meditation teaches accepting stressful situations, separating from triggers and cravings and replacing them with mindful responses, instead of returning to autopilot and to the drug streets. Meditation is now used in the boardroom and the classroom -why not the courtroom?

We cannot always control of the events in our lives, but we are in charge of our response. Meditation is a tool that works.

This blog is a summary of Judge Jamey Heuston’s ABA Criminal Justice Magazine article “Mindfulness in the Courts: Meditation for Substance Abusers – a path to recovery” Link to the full article here 

Judge Jamey Hueston is a founding member and former judge-in-charge of the Baltimore City Drug Court for 20 years. She also founded and chaired for over a decade the Maryland Office of Problem Solving Courts, one of the first state-wide drug court oversight offices in the country. She is a pioneer founder of the National Association of Drug Court Professional and recent vice-president. She also created the drug court meditation component in the Baltimore City DTC and continues to promote meditation practice in her traditional court assignments as a sitting judge.

Additional Resources:
Government Uses of Meditation for Health in the United States (2006). National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Bowen, S., Witkiewitz K., Clifasefi, S.L., Grow, J., Chawla, N., Hsu S.H., Carroll, H.A., Harrop, E., Collins, S.E., Lustyk, M.K., Larimer, M.E. (2014). Relative Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, Standard Relapse Prevention, and Treatment as Usual for Substance Use Disorders A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 71(5):547-556.

Holzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1): 36-43.

Marlowe, D.B., Douglas B. Marlowe, Festinger, D.S., Dugosh, K.L., Lee, P.A., Benasutti, K.M. (2007). Adapting judicial supervision to the risk level of drug offenders: Discharge and 6-month outcomes from a prospective matching study. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 88S, 4–13.

One thought on “Is there a role for mindfulness meditation in courts?

  1. Article about current state of knowledge re: mindfullness interventions can be found here:
    Mindfulness interventions aim to foster greater attention to and awareness of present moment experience. There has been a dramatic increase in randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of mindfulness interventions over the past two decades. This article evaluates the growing evidence of mindfulness intervention RCTs by reviewing and discussing (a) the effects of mindfulness interventions on health, cognitive, affective, and interpersonal outcomes; (b) evidence-based applications of mindfulness interventions to new settings and populations (e.g., the workplace, military, schools); (c) psychological and neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness interventions; (d) mindfulness intervention dosing considerations; and (e) potential risks of mindfulness interventions. Methodologically rigorous RCTs have demonstrated that mindfulness interventions improve outcomes in multiple domains (e.g., chronic pain, depression relapse, addiction). Discussion focuses on opportunities and challenges for mindfulness intervention research and on community applications.


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