In the United States, more than 24.5 million people are addicted to drugs or alcohol, with millions more contributing drug offenses including sale, distribution, and using. Since the 1960s, most drug-related crimes, including use, have been treated with incarceration. Only recently have courts begun to seek out alternatives like treatment and rehab instead of prison time. But, as a fairly new trend, many people are still behind imprisoning drug offenders, largely with the goal of removing potentially dangerous criminals from the street.
But, does imprisoning drug offenders impact drug use? And, more importantly, is that impact a positive one? With data available on both sides of the opinion spectrum, we have enough information for most people to make a rational and informed decision.
Does Imprisoning Drug Offenders Reduce Drug Use?
In some cases, parents and family or community members believe that incarceration will limit an individual’s access to drugs. The idea is that with no access to the substance they are dependent on, many will be forced to withdraw and get clean not of their own volition. However, this often isn’t true. Many prisons and incarceration facilities experience a thriving black market enabled by corruption and aging security technology. Chances are that addicts can still access drugs while in prison. For example, in some prisons, overdose rates are higher than on the street.
Furthermore, without the follow-up treatment to tackle the behavioral and psychological factors behind addiction, many addicts won’t be able to recover. Instead, they’ll relapse and use as soon as they leave prison and are able to use again. Most addiction is based on a complex range of factors such as stress, trauma, mental disorders (anxiety, bipolar disorder), and poor family or communal relationships. Without fixing those underlying issues, the addict is just as likely to return to the same method of trying to solve their problems.
Because prison is typically traumatic and stressful in its own right, imprisonment could actually exacerbate existing issues.
Multiple studies also back this up, with research by PEW showing that incarceration does not reduce drug abuse or deaths caused by overdose. So, incarceration does not reduce total drug use at all.
However, incarceration may have some positive effects on drug use. For example, cocaine prices have been forced up between 10 and 15% by the drug war. This results in fewer users (an estimated 15-20%), reducing the number of hospitalizations, money spent on medical care, and damage caused by persons under the influence.
Does Imprisoning Drug Offenders Make Communities Safer?
One of the largest factors voting for imprisoning drug offenders is the potential to make communities safer. Drugs and alcohol are involved in a large percentage of violent crime and crime altogether – leading many to believe that ‘getting them off the streets’ is the way to go. However, the overwhelming majority of drug offenders return to the streets after just a few years of imprisonment. The average sentence served by a person sentenced for a drug crime is just 20 months – after which they are back on the street after being in an unhealthy and even toxic environment.
Furthermore, following incarceration, many are labeled as felons and may be unable to get a job or participate as a productive member of society. As a result, a return to crime and potential for reincarceration is high.
In one study – one of the few showing a positive relationship to incarceration and reduced crime – suggested that the entire war on drugs since the 1990s has had at best a 1-3% positive impact on crime.
Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug Use
Incarceration for drug-related crimes peaked in the 1990s and has since dropped dramatically, but nearly 1/4th of all incarcerated persons in the U.S. (17%) are serving time for a drug-only offense.
1 in 31 American adults has spent time in jail for drug use or possession with 40% of these arrests relating to cannabis possession. These statistics are massive for a system that has been shown to not work – and potentially cause more harm than good for the addict or drug user in question.
At the same time, a growing body of evidence shows that alternative treatment solutions like rehab and therapy may be significantly more effective in helping addicts and reducing crime.
For example, the National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study (NTIES) found that treatment costs an average of $1,800-$6,800 per person versus imprisonment, which costs an average of $31,286 per person (2010) per year. Even an impressive 2-year training program with community support, skills training, and job training costs an average of $32,94, or half the cost of imprisoning that same person for the same period of the time.
On study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Colombia University found that a 2-year program significantly reduced recidivism and future drug use, increased the chances of the user finding and keeping a job, and significantly reduced total costs to the state. In Maryland, some of these efforts are already being put into practice, with Baltimore offering diversion programs for drug offenders through Drug Treatment Court. Through that, they have reduced recidivism while reducing the cost from $20,000 to $4,000 per person. With the same study showing that 65% of all people behind bars meet DSM IV criteria for addiction, switching to a treatment vs. incarceration model could reduce drug use, hospitalization, and drug-related crime.
Finding a Balance
Moving forward, more and more courts and states are adopting treatment friendly policies for drug offenders. Those not accused of violent crimes are more easily able to serve time in rehab or seek out treatment after being evaluated by a caseworker, instead of prison. With more courts offering treatment and rehab as an alternative to serving time, more people have the opportunity to recover from addiction.
However, in some cases, drug users commit violent crimes deserving of traditional prison sentences. Treatment in prison is becoming more common, but with rampant drug availability, stressful environments, and medical staff that is often overwhelmed this has so far not been proven as effective as treatment outside of prison.
Millions of Americans serve time in prison for drug-related crimes, even possessing or using with no intent to sell. With some 17% of all incarcerated individuals serving on drug-related sentences (more than 400,000), imprisoning drug users considerably impacts the American economy. However, with more and more data showing that incarceration does not reduce drug use in a meaningful way, changing policies and offering treatment rather than incarceration is more often seen as the way forward.
If you or a loved one is addicted, there is help. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ensures your privacy and legal protection should you seek treatment. A professional rehabilitation center will be able to help you through detox and move you into therapy to overcome the underlying problems behind addiction so that you can recover and get back to your life, without facing possible jail time or a felony sentence.
If you or a loved one is looking for modern and effective treatment programs, please contact Lighthouse Treatment Center today for more information. We are to help and happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors.