What If We Helped Addicts Instead Of Declaring War On Them?

If you had a heart attack while driving car and crashed into another car seriously injuring the other driver, should you go to jail? Or should you go to the hospital and cardiac rehabilitation?

What about the person suffering from Alzheimer who curses and hits a store clerk?  Or steals?  Should that person be in jail or in a nursing home with a support system in place?

Well, what about alcoholics and addicts?

Alcoholism and addiction is a disease. (source) A disease that ruins lives in ugly and unpredictable ways, but a physical disease nonetheless.  People argue, and I agree, that addiction is a disease which people can get help for and often chose to not, and their choice means consequences.  Although unhealthy eating, smoking and not getting enough sleep are often laden with choices as well.

However, for the 1.15 million addicts who go to prison, sitting in a cell with no access to any solution to the disease, isn’t helping anyone. It denies that addiction is a disease. Prison MIGHT keep them sober while there, but when they leave, most will come right back. (source)

Perhaps, for the duration of the prison term, they aren’t hurting those outside the prison. Except for the $20,000 per year per inmate (depending on the prison and the state) it costs us to keep them there. Add in recidivism and this seems much less wise than spending that money on give them a chance to beat the disease and never commit another crime.

I think that addicts should be places in a specialized prison that works with them like a rehabilitation center. We have at least one in Virginia’s Henrico County East Jail System, Project Hope and for women, Project New Beginnings.

Over 50% of crime are committed by someone who tests positive for drugs. And for some crimes, it’s even higher. For example, for property-related, non-violent crimes in Sacramento, CA, the rate is 75%. (source)

When Illinois implemented a drug treatment program for prisoners, the facility was found to have an 8% recidivism rate compared to the statewide one of 54%. (source) 92% of prisoners who received drug treatment never went back to prison. Sober people just don’t commit many crimes and I believe that most crimes committed by addicts are due to their addition.

Not only does the state save that $20,000 per year per inmate by lowering recidivism rates, it has added contributing members of society. People who work, pay taxes and make purchases.  One study of 150 participates showed that Drug Treatment Alternative To Prison Program saved New York $7 million. (source)

Of course, not every crime that involves drugs also involves addicts. Even growing, smuggling and selling drugs, does not necessarily mean a person is addicted to drugs.

But I believe that there are situations which scream addict. It’s rare for a non-alcoholic to be arrested for a DUI twice. It’s rare for a recreational drug user to break into their neighbors home and steal money to get more drugs. That’s not quite recreational.

Violent crimes are more difficult to tell. Drugs and alcohol can bring out violence in a person. People can be violent and use drugs and alcohol.

However, these facilitates aren’t fancy rehabs. They are still penitentiaries. Just ones that give people a chance rather than make us all wait until they use and commit a crime again.

There is a line that drinkers and drug users cross, and whether it’s two days or twenty year later, they find that cannot stop even when they want to. And they often cannot admit that they can’t stop. We need judges, lawyers, probation officers and social worker to look for that line. And to honor what that means for a person. To honor that addiction is a disease.

The justice system will make mistakes. We will put some non-addicts in rehabilitation centers just like we sometimes put innocent people in jail. We will have addicts not ready or willing who won’t be helped by the centers.

But I think that the chance is worth taking.

I hope to write more on prison reform as I think that our country has made some poor choices, but the war on drugs seems the poorest and thus, the best place to begin.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

19 thoughts to “What If We Helped Addicts Instead Of Declaring War On Them?”

  1. I think you make a lot of great points. However, I truly believe you can’t change someone who does not want to change. That’s the problem with addiction; many people don’t think they have a problem or don’t want to solve it. They need to be on board with the solution. I suppose that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer help but I don’t know that we can force them to accept it on a large scale.

    1. I completely agree that they have to be on board and usually it’s at their lowest time that they are most likely to listen. There not much lower than going to jail!

  2. That’s so interesting – I’ve never heard some of those statistics before. And if that incredibly reduced recidivism rate is accurate and can be found to happen in other places then it seems a fantastic program to try and help decrease our fantastically high prison population.

    1. So the DEA’s national statistics are that recidivism is reduced from 60% to 20% when an inmate receives drug treatment. I’m not sure if that includes prison’s that have AA/NA meetings and treatment couselors or are like the VA and IL programs (separate facilities etc..)

      When I began this post, I didn’t realize how strong the statistics would be. For me in began as a moral/medical issue.

  3. I definitely think that our entire prison system needs to be overhauled. Yes, there are some people that no matter the efforts will never change. But I believe that there is hope for most. But it needs to start before they commit the crime or try the first drug. It starts at birth.
    However, since we can’t control how people parent, or all the opportunities afforded – a good place to start is rehabilitating those who are addicts and in the prison system.

    1. I totally agree that keeping people from getting into the system in the first place is ideal. Although I don’t know that true addiction and parenting are related. I loved this: “Yes, there are some people that no matter the efforts will never change. But I believe that there is hope for most.” I have to believe it’s true.

  4. I think it depends on the severity of what they’re arrested for. IE: Guy gets pulled over and searched, and they find weed on him. Again. Strike Three. This guy doesn’t need 10 years hard time, he just needs rehab.

    Alternately, a guy gets pulled over and searched, and he has enough drugs in his trunk to sell to the entire state of California. This guy should probably get jail time. Not because he’s an addict, but because he’s fueling the problem by adding to the problem.

    I agree with your assessment, however. Prison isn’t helping the situation. Rather, it’s just fueling the fire.

    Also, reading this post after finishing my own post today makes me feel silly in comparison to your words. Prison reform versus my husband as Batman. Hmmm…LOL.

    1. Yesterday, my post was about chicken so I think that you are in great company.

      I did struggle with the idea of severity and where to draw the line. One state only let first and second time offender into the programs but I’m not sure if that was only non-violent crime.

      1. I didn’t say that it should be legal to DRIVE while doping. That’s immoral.

        Killing yourself or ruining your own life isn’t. Go for it.

        Study after study shows that crime against non-druggies drops precipitously when drugs are decriminalized (no pushers, no knocking over a convenience store to buy drugs). Plus we can tax the hell out of it and have lots more cash for those rehab clinics for folks who truly want to get clean.

        1. Well now that actually sounds like an argument. Wouldn’t addicts still need money to buy them? What about shoplifting them? I assume those studies are from European countries. Do you think that translates to the US culture?

  5. Wow… given these statistics, it’s really sad we don’t have more rehab programs. It’s kind of like spending money on preventive health care now so we can save money in the long run. It’s obviously a good idea, but in a time of budgetary crisis, supporting it is controversial. Alex, will you run for office? I’ll volunteer as one of your minions.

  6. I agree with you. I also agree that addicts need to want help first. I believe most problems come not when they are incarcerated but when they leave. We can’t replace their lives and friends and families. In jail rehab programs are a great idea but also have shortcomings. I worked in that jail. There is a waiting list for the program usually. Sadly, most people are begging to get in not for rehab but for reduced sentencing. It looks good in court to say you went to the program. Repeat offenders go through it many times. I am not trying to be down on the program bc I think it is good and helps some people. Another alternative to incarceration offered in the County is the Drug Court program. http://www.co.henrico.va.us/departments/ccjudges/drug-court/ These folks are not held in jail but are accountable to judges on a weekly basis and have to take drug test regularly. It shown great results.

  7. I’m also in favor of decriminalizing, at least marijuana (although Himself says drugs shouldn’t be criminal, period) because it makes zero sense to me morally, legally or medically, that alcohol is legal and pot isn’t.

    I’ve treated lots of people who damaged themselves with alcohol. Never one who damaged himself smoking pot. And in countries where marijuana is legal, there are no differences between DUI instances there and here. (Actually, I take that back – I think I remember that DUI is less common in many European countries, their attitudes toward use may simply be more appropriate than ours.)

    But in California, where we are facing an education cut-back of catastrophic proportions, the BILLIONS of dollars we spend each year keeping non-violent drug-possession offenders in jail seems to me a tragic and profoundly misguided waste of financial resources.

    And kids who don’t get good educations are more likely to use drugs.

    Riddle me that one, Oh House Of Legislators??

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