Last Updated on April 26, 2021 by Morris Green
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.
Table of contents
- The Problem of Drug Imprisonment
- Substance Abuse Treatment Could Save Billions
- A 21st Century Drug Policy
- Building a Better Tomorrow in North Carolina
- Tearing Down the Stigma
- Four Reasons to Support Substance Abuse Treatment
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.
hello Miss Green I have a son who is 26 he’s incarcerated in Harris County Texas he was on meth for 6 months in them 6 months he got 5 felonies for violating protective order is there anyway you could help me get him help to not go to prison he’s a very young man with a big heart he just got off on the wrong path could you please help me put in a word for him I would really appreciate it I get my words jumbled up and I get nervous Miss Green please help me save this young man thank you very much
Sharon, this is no help to U now i’m sure. but i used meth 1st at 48 i have been clean from meth since 09/21/2011. and alcohol & opaites for over 25 years.if u see this; i am very curious as to what has happened w-ur son in the last 2 plus years since u wrote this. i have a lot of experience w/ substance abuse &recovery (NO PERSONAL INFO PLEASE!)
Derek Mcdoogle says
You stated that of the more than 2 million people held in prisons or jails, approximately one quarter have a convicted drug offense. Do most judges offer to send these people to a treatment center? My cousin was arrested last night for some drug charges on the way home from a frat party. Finding a substance use disorder treatment facility might be our best option.
Ms. McClean-Green: My 39 year old son is heading back to jail or prison for driving while suspended. He is an alcoholic with an extensive criminal record. His alcohol use is in conjuction with dx of PTSD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, severe depression. The DA is out to make a point. My son will not get better or be a better father to his 12 year old daughter via incarceration. How do I help educate this DA that treatment would be more beneficial to the community he is trying to protect than locking up this man with illness and documented mental issues?
Ms. Green my husband is in jail he has numerous of felonies due to his drug use I’ve done some research and he could really use the help can you contact me if you can help us please!!!
My son is 29 years old. He became addicted to heroin around Oct. 2016 in which I finally discovered and began the crazy running around to make sure he was alive and trying to get him treatment in which he wanted. in 2017 he already had charges compiling against him, but was never made to seek treatment, only arresting him to let other drug addicts with pending drug charges allow to bail him out,which we know why, to use him to pay them back for bailing him out, only for the authorities to arrest him again and let him out after the drug dealers bail him out yet again. Well, this circus went on for 1 and a half years with the courts delaying his charges until hell I was overwhelmed much less he who is using 10 grams of heroin a day, he would be arrested for forgetting to show up for court because he was stoned out of his mind, arrested again for contempt of court. once I finally got an available bed for him at a rehab we could afford and he was arrested on the way to rehab because he didn’t put his seatbelt on right away when leaving the gas station and the police stopped us and ask for his ID and he had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear, it was our best chance to get him into a rehab we had been waiting for. the macon county magistrate didn’t give a dam and locked him up anyway. of course the drug dealers came along eventually and bailed him out for a 100th time. He has now served 4 months in jail and is starting to have a clear mind and I think is in shock what he faces, as am I. I want him to go to drug court in Asheville NC., which would be a better alternative as to send him to prison for 40 years the rest of his young life, but Macon county NC and the Police and Courts are sickened about the way they treat people. Their so proud to put them away for the rest of their lives, what about being proud about helping your fellow human being who has a drug problem and could actually benefit from positive interaction and not just be hunted down like an animal with no feelings or life. What if it was one of their family members, wouldn’t they have a differen’t attitude then. I love my son and have been in sheer agony for 4 months trying to get someone to help and not just be looking for money for once. is there a human being who’s an attorney who actually would do a pro bono once in his or her life, just to feel good that their helping a fellow human being who just needs a chance. if your out there please contact me.