Americans have always viewed drug addiction as a serious issue, yet they increasingly believe that punishment is the wrong way to address the problem. According to the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans now believe that the focus on heroin and cocaine abusers should shift toward treatment, rather than incarceration.
Despite the hard-line approach on drug offenses recently announced by Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, most states seem to agree with this shift: possession penalties and mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes are becoming less common.
There are many reasons why it’s a good idea to keep this momentum going.
Treating the actual addiction problem itself would likely cost much less in the long run. Incarceration costs add up when you factor in expenses such as jail time, court, law enforcement, and emergency health care. Even when individuals are released, it is likely that they will find themselves in the same situation again.
Prisoners today are often put in a position where they are set up to fail, and their cycle of addiction will only spiral further out of control without proper treatment.
The treatment alternative gives individuals a much better chance to return to society as contributing citizens. It will also save taxpayers money. The state of New York alone has claimed that a more treatment-focused approach has saved the state $250 million annually.
The bottom line: helping drug addicts recover will lessen the expenses of the incarceration process and boost the economy by adding more capable individuals to the work force.
While there are some cases where sending drug offenders to jail may help them break their cycle of addiction, sending them to specialized treatment will actually make that a focus. Rather than getting a slap on the wrist, substance abusers who are sent to treatment are counseled to find the roots of their drug- or alcohol-related issues.
Sending a person to jail should help him or her learn from mistakes and return as a contributing member of society later. Going to jail may help people overcome these mistakes, but if they leave without treating their mental and substance abuse issues, you can expect history to repeat itself.
Substance abuse is an illness, and like any other illness, if you do not get the proper care, you are going to remain sick.
The Prison Environment
The way most prisons are set up today, convicts are likely to continue their criminal behavior rather than getting help. In prison, people are typically confined and unable to improve on basic skills that will help them when they are released. Prisoners are already punished enough by being completely isolated from the rest of society, they should at least be given the tools to effectively rehabilitate themselves. Unfortunately, that is far from the case now.
One way states can change this culture is by implementing Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) programs. There are already many of these rehabs in Michigan and other states set up within select correctional facilities. Prisoners are given the option to apply to be housed in RSAT centers while receiving treatment from dusk ‘til dawn every day. If states are going to insist on incarcerating drug offenders, adding programs like this can go a long way in helping these prisoners rehabilitate.
Many people would prefer to see jail space used for violent offenders rather than drug offenders, and for good reason. People with drug abuse issues need help, which can be much more difficult to find when behind bars. After being released from jail, these people might end up being public safety risks, since they feel that they have no options. Shifting towards community-based treatment and supervised probation could end up being effective alternatives to incarceration.
Many fail to realize that drug addicts are battling a serious illness. If we send them back to the streets without treatment, the chances are that they are just going to revert. Throwing drug addicts in jail may help for a short period of time; but in the long run, both the addict and the rest of the community will benefit more from treatment instead.
Connor Hayes is a freelance writer on addiction issues based in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He welcomes comments from readers.