Aaron is almost 19 and, like most 19-year-olds, loves movies, music, and games. As Aaron’s 19th birthday approaches, thoughts of cake, friends, and a slammin’ party dance in Aaron’s head. But unlike other almost-19-year-olds, Aaron won’t have a birthday because of incarceration for a drug related crime.
Who is Aaron? Aaron is the guy you went to high school with, the one who dabbled in drug use. He is the neighbor’s child who seems to always be in trouble and hanging out with the wrong crowd. Aaron is the face of incarceration for drug use across America. And it’s this face that makes us ask if there’s a better way. This face brings light to the benefits of substance abuse treatment over incarceration.
The Problem of Drug Imprisonment
When we think of incarceration, most of us first think of serious offenders. Drug related charges don’t initially come to mind unless they were in addition to a more serious crime. Yet, according to Drug War Facts, between 2001 and 2013, more than 50 percent of prisoners serving a sentence in federal facilities for more than one year were convicted of a drug offense.
Do the crime. Do the time. It’s the principle we’ve held to for generations. And while it’s justly right for an individual to face the consequences of his or her actions, what if the consequences the justice system dispenses miss the root of the problem entirely?
Drug Addiction Treatment in the Criminal Justice System
According to the 2013 national findings of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA (a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), an estimated 4.5 million adults at or over the age of 18 were on probation at some point during the previous year. Of those, more than one quarter (31.4 percent) were current and illicit drug users.
The data goes on to show that of the estimated 1.7 million adults on parole in the U.S. in 2013, roughly one quarter (27.4 percent) were current and illicit drug users. The report compiled by SAMHSA sheds light on one of the biggest problems of drug imprisonment; offenders usually fall into one of two categories:
- First Time: Unless caught possessing or using an illegal substance, most offenders are arrested for committing a crime related to their existing drug habit.
- Return: The vast majority of repeat offenders admit to committing their second (or most recent) crime in an effort to obtain money for drugs or the drugs themselves.
The United States holds the global lead for total number of people incarcerated in both federal and state correctional facilities. Of the more than 2 million people held in prisons or jails, approximately one quarter have a convicted drug offense.
The U.S. jails more people for drug offenses than any other country. As of the Justice Policy Institute’s findings in 2013, 6.8 million Americans struggle with drug abuse or dependency. Therefore, the prison population and cost of maintaining facility standards could potentially explode.
The Justice Policy Institute references a study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy in a report entitled, For Immediate Release: How to safely reduce prison populations and support people returning to their communities. The excerpt reads:
Substance Abuse Treatment Could Save Billions
What’s the difference between one million versus one billion? From a purely mathematical point of view, the number of zeros makes the difference. But in reality, saving billions versus millions is HUGE.
By sending substance-abusing prisoners to community-based treatment programs, there would be an immediate reduction in incarceration costs. But the benefit of choosing substance abuse treatment over incarceration doesn’t stop there. The receipt of proper, professional treatment and counseling offers the potential of addressing the root cause of drug related crimes. As a result, re-arrest and re-incarceration occurrences would drop.
According to the journal Crime and Delinquency, if just 10 percent of eligible offenders were sent to community-based substance abuse treatment programs, the criminal justice system would see a $4.8 billion savings in comparison to current practices. Researchers concluded that if 40 percent of eligible offenders were granted this type of treatment, the savings would total nearly $13 billion!
A 21st Century Drug Policy
It’s no secret that the President envisions an America built to last. His staunch support of education, a skilled workforce, and a competitive edge in the global marketplace relit the spirit of independence, which defines our country and its citizens. But for far too many, this vision has grown limited. One cause for such limitation has been drug use.
WhiteHouse.gov reports the cost of illicit drug use in 2007 reaching $193 billion. It takes a toll on productivity, healthcare, and criminal justice costs.
Drug abuse starts small. Do you remember our infographic about the three drugs you didn’t know college students are abusing? The second was probably the most surprising: energy drinks combined with alcohol. It may not sound as daunting as heroin or cocaine, but misuse and overuse quickly cascade into an abuse and addiction problem—a problem that will plague teens into adulthood and adults until they get help. The cycle of addiction includes trying heavier, more potent substances.
The science behind addiction shows that substance abuse and subsequent addiction need not be a life sentence. Instead, the key to a better tomorrow for those addicted to drugs and alcohol, their families, and communities lies in education. As the age-old proverb says:
Building a Better Tomorrow in North Carolina
Our local community is no exception to the nationwide substance abuse epidemic. In fact, Charlotte is among the cities with the fastest growing number of heroin users under the age of 25. And while the benefit of substance abuse treatment over incarceration are apparent, treatment will never have a chance if we hold to common myths:
Myth #1: Substance Addiction is Voluntary
Yes, a person decides whether to use a drug, but that does not make drug abuse or addiction voluntary. Over time, continued use of any addictive substance changes the brain. Sometimes these changes are dramatic, but in most cases, they are subtle. The change results in compulsive and sometimes uncontrollable drug use.
This is one reason why treatment is more beneficial versus incarceration. Imprisonment punishes an individual for their actions, but it cannot undo the physical and psychological changes caused by drug use. It takes time and treatment to overcome addiction.
Myth #2: Treatment Must Be Wanted to Work
People in denial who don’t want to get better will never benefit from substance abuse treatment. Right? Wrong.
Very rarely does anyone want drug treatment, and even more rarely do they openly admit to needing it. The studies and statistics we’ve presented were not derived from perfect patients who yearned for treatment. The vast majority sought treatment for one of two reasons:
- The courts ordered them to do so, and they had no choice.
- Loved ones for close friends urged them to, and they felt like they had no choice.
Treatment works because it addresses the root issue. It takes into consideration the brain chemistry involved in addiction, and active, viable means of combating it are used. The want to overcome addiction is a welcome addition, but it’s not always present and it is not contingent to success.
Myth #3: Drug Treatment is a One-Shot Deal
Drug addiction isn’t like the flu. A victim cannot be vaccinated or magically cured in one session. Drug abuse is like any other illness; it’s typically a chronic disorder. Some can quit “cold turkey,” while others will need more than a single treatment.
Substance abuse counseling isn’t a one-shot deal, which means drug treatment isn’t either. It took months, even years, to develop the addiction. It will likewise take time to positively address and see tangible results. But the cost and benefits of treatment far outweigh incarceration. Wouldn’t it be better to visibly see people in our communities kick the habit and crime rates reduce without dumping tax dollars into an unproductive system?
Myth #4: Rock Bottom Comes Before Treatment
Some think it’s necessary for a drug abuser to hit rock bottom before any change can be effected. This way of thinking is one of the reasons the criminal justice system spends so much time, energy, manpower, and money on incarceration.
The fact is there are numerous ways to motivate a person to enter and complete substance abuse treatment before they hit rock bottom. We’re quick to blame peer pressure for our teens and young adults trying and using drugs. But what about positive peer pressure?
Pressure from family, friends, co-workers, and employers coupled with personal recognition that a problem exists can be a powerful motivator. It can push someone to seek help before they do something stupid and face serious consequences with little to no hope of treatment. It’s a lack of positive peer pressure and a lack of understanding that leads to drug users and abusers becoming repeat offenders.
Tearing Down the Stigma
Television, film, and society have painted a substance abuse stereotype that has led to a stigma stopping many from getting help. Society automatically categorizes people that are addicted to drugs and alcohol as criminals. It labels them as people beyond reason and help. And it fails to properly define just what addiction truly is; a very real, taxing, and toxic illness.
The first step in tearing down the stigma and building a better community is in recognizing substance abuse and addiction for what it is. The second step is ensuring treatment is readily available to those in need.
Four Reasons to Support Substance Abuse Treatment
What does all of the information we’ve covered add up to? What’s the takeaway? Simply put, there are five reasons to support the use of substance abuse treatment over incarceration for drug use:
- Monetary Savings: The research is in, and it’s convincing. Investing in treatment over incarceration will save not millions, but billions of taxpayer dollars each year! If 40 percent of eligible offenders receiving proper treatment save the criminal justice system almost $13 billion, imagine if 50, 90, or 100 percent received treatment.
- Life Savings: Saving money is great but isn’t it even sweeter to save a life? Thousands of people die every year due to drug related crimes and accidents. Sending offenders to prison and releasing them back into the world with the same want for drugs doesn’t save lives. By advocating for substance abuse treatment, we advocate for life.
- Crime Reduction: The majority of offenders serving a sentence were busted for more than possession. They committed a hard crime, usually in an attempt to get money for drugs or the drug itself. If we address and assist the root problem, we fight for safer streets and a reduction in crime.
- A Better Future: Addiction is an illness. While not-so-smart decisions are sometimes the culprit behind drug use, addiction is an entirely different bear. The only way we can secure a better future is by treating the illness. If we had failed to treat the epidemics of old, we wouldn’t be here today. Why should we push off substance abuse and addiction as anything less than a growing epidemic in need of proper treatment?
The case for treatment over incarceration is clear. It’s time to advocate for change because, without it, our families, our communities, and our very nation will lose out on a better tomorrow.