Is Jail the Right Place For Drug Offenders?

By Dirk Hanson 05/20/11

As the Sentencing Project makes clear, the justice system does not help drug addicts avoid the “revolving door.”

Once you’re in, you’re on your own.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

“We like to spend money locking people up here,” said Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC news show last week. She was referring to the United States, and she’s right, of course. When Maddow showed off The Sentencing Project’s “cool, nifty” rollover state map on incarceration rates, she noted that the closer your state is to all-time lockup champ Louisiana, the more people your state throws in prison. That’s an interesting fact--but there are other interesting facts to contemplate, here in the country that incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country. For example, figures from The Sentencing Project show that U.S. prisons and jails housed a total of 2.3 million inmates in 2009. Drug offenders made up 52% of federal prison inmates in 2008. And Bureau of Justice Statistics cited by the Sentencing Project show that 1 in 4 jail inmates in 2002 was in jail for a drug offense, compared to 1 in 10 in 1983.

In a report entitled “Barred from Treatment: Punishment of Drug Users in New York State Prisons,” Human Rights Watch documents that even addicts who are allowed to seek treatment face major delays “because treatment programs are filled to capacity.” New York State Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, chair of the State Committee on Corrections, told the investigators: “Denying treatment to inmates who suffer from a drug dependency is illogical and counterproductive to the goal of rehabilitation.” “Despite overwhelming evidence that medication-assisted therapy is the most effective treatment for opiate addiction, the majority of New York State prisoners dependent on heroin or other opiates have no access to methadone or buprenorphine.

What does it mean? For one thing, it means that prisons are stuffed with drug addicts. And that creates an opportunity to offer sustained, evidence-based treatment to a population that desperately needs it, but cannot, in most cases, afford to pay for it.

We’re confident you can guess how that story turns out.

The American prison system does next to nothing for drug addicts, except give them access to a steady supply of drugs. As the Sentencing Project makes clear, the justice system does not systematically help drug addicts avoid prison, or reintegrate them into society when they get out. And, since a high number of chronic drug abusers also suffer from other mental disorders, the lack of consistent, well-funded, effective programs for ex-offenders virtually guarantees a revolving-door cycle of repeated incarcerations. For those drug felons who are not themselves addicts, and who are in prison due to simple possession charges, parole programs could ease prison crowding significantly.

Still not convinced? Think drug offenders are in prison because they belong there? Okay, but it’ll cost ya. A major RAND Corporation study of the prison system concluded that treatment is "fifteen times more effective at reducing drug-related crime than incarceration." If that is the case, then every untreated addict released from prison represents a tragically wasted opportunity.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]