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.