We know that addiction is a disease, so does it make sense to put people with a disease in jail and expect them to get better? Although prison sentences may be appropriate for those trafficking in the sale of illegal drugs, countless studies agree that jail time does not deter drug or alcohol use and does not help those with a substance use disorder.
Imprisonment is meant to punish past crimes and discourage future criminal behavior, but most jails and prisons do not have the staff or training to offer substance abuse rehabilitation services. Without treatment, “at least 1 in 4 people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year,” and that includes those with mental illnesses and substance use disorders, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Researchers at the Pew Charitable Trusts issued a brief in 2018 suggesting a combination of the following approaches would be a more effective response to illegal drug use than prison:
- More support to law enforcement for curtailment of drug trafficking and to prevent the emergence of new markets
- Alternative sentencing to divert nonviolent drug offenders from costly imprisonment
- Increased access to treatment resources to reduce dependency and recidivism
- Increased prevention efforts to identify individuals at high risk for substance use disorders
Punishment or Treatment?
Researchers estimate 65 percent of U.S. prison inmates have an active substance use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and yet few receive any form of recovery services. NIDA agrees with other experts that there is no evidence to support incarceration as an effective way to reduce drug use and addiction, stating “addiction is a treatable disease of the brain that needs proper medical attention.”
Experts estimate only about eleven percent of inmates suffering with a SUD receive any treatment and that former inmates have a significantly high risk of death, especially from drug overdose.
The risk of overdose is highest during the first two weeks after release. When a person cannot use drugs for a prolonged period because they are in jail or for any other reason, their tolerance decreases. If they go right back to using the dose they took before they were incarcerated, they are in danger of overdose.
What is Harm Reduction?
Many experts encourage a harm reduction approach rather than a punitive approach for drug violations. Harm reduction focuses on justice, human rights, and improving access to recovery resources for individuals with substance use disorder. Proponents of harm reduction seek reform in current drug laws and policies that hurt, rather than help, those incarcerated because of addiction.
Studies show countries that have adopted the harm reduction approach, which focuses on health-based policies and rehabilitation, achieve more positive outcomes than countries that favor punishment.
Bias in the U.S. Court System
Multiple studies have highlighted the disparity in conviction rates and imposition of mandatory minimum sentences between people of color and white defendants.
Data compiled in 2017 by the United States Sentencing Commission revealed that Hispanic and Black offenders accounted for about 70 percent of those receiving a mandatory minimum penalty as compared to about 27 percent of white offenders for a similar offense. Mandatory minimum sentences average 138 months while non-mandatory minimum sentences averaged 28 months.
Most U.S. courts operate a cash bail system, meaning defendants must pay a court-determined amount to be free while they await trial. When a person does not have the money to make bail, they must remain in jail while they wait for their court date. This system unfairly impacts Americans with the fewest resources.
The High Cost of Incarceration
The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any other country. About 20 percent of the prison census includes nonviolent drug offenders, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. If courts sent even a small percentage of that number to a community-based substance use treatment program instead of jail, the criminal justice system would save billions of dollars. Re-allocation of those savings could address other public safety and social issues.
The savings would extend far beyond the cost of housing inmates. Those who receive treatment for substance use disorders are far less likely to commit crimes, face re-arrest and trial costs, and are more likely to become productive citizens.
Why Treatment is the Better Option
When you are in jail, you may lose access to drugs or alcohol, but without treatment, you do not lose your desire for them. Your brain is still wired to associate addictive substances with pleasure or comfort, and prison does not change that. Once you are released from jail, you will likely return to substance abuse.
Treatment helps you get to the root cause of addiction. Trained therapists work with you to identify and resolve past abuse and other traumatic events. They help you understand any genetic predisposition to addiction, environmental contributors, and other risk factors. You learn to recognize people, places, and events that have triggered past addictive behavior and to develop coping skills to manage triggers. Medical professionals ensure you are safe during detoxification, and prescribe medications if appropriate.
Those with a powerful support group that includes family, friends, and peers increase the likelihood of their successful long-term recovery. By attending a recovery program outside of prison, you are more likely to receive the support you need. Most facilities also offer programs to help you transition to life after rehab.
Turning Point of Tampa has been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.