More Sensible Sentencing for Drug Offenders

judge with a justice hammer

When it comes to sentencing drug offenders, research indicates that addiction treatment is often a better option than jail time, both in effectiveness and cost. But is court-ordered treatment and forced rehab the answer?

We’re Number One

With 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any country on Earth. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates the number of inmates in the U.S. correctional system at 2.3 million, representing one in every 48 working-age males, an increase of 240 percent from what it was in 1980. Of those 2.3 million inmates, one-fourth are non-violent drug offenders, an increase from less than one-tenth of the entire inmate population in 1980.

Much of this increase has to do with the U.S.’s “War on Drugs” as well as an increase in private for-profit prisons, which maximize revenues by keeping cells occupied. Regardless of the reasons, with the cost of housing prisoners skyrocketing, and overcrowding a concern in many prisons, is locking up drug offenders really the most effective course of action? Especially given that nearly 77 percent of drug offenders are likely to be rearrested, according to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

No Treatment Costs More

While many voters are wary about having their tax dollars used to provide convicted drug offenders with expensive drug addiction treatment, studies indicate that doing so is actually a more cost-effective alternative than locking them up in jail.

A study by RTI International and Temple University found that while roughly 50 percent of U.S. state prisoners met the criteria for a diagnosis of drug abuse or dependence, only 10 percent of those prisoners received any kind of medically based drug treatment. The researchers found that providing substance-abusing state prisoners with effective treatment while in prison and immediately after their release would save the U.S. criminal justice system billions of dollars.

According to Gary Zarkin, PhD, Vice President of the Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice Division at RTI International and the study’s lead author, “With greater investment in substance abuse treatment before and after release, states would save approximately $17 billion in criminal justice system costs, which includes the costs of arrests, trials, incarceration, and treatment.” Dr. Zarkin warns, however, that simply improving access to treatment isn’t enough — the quality of the treatment also needs to be more effective.

In 2011, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice released its own evaluation of rates of recidivism — a relapse into criminal behavior, often after receiving sanctions or undergoing intervention for a previous crime — for released drug offenders who had completed rehabilitation programs. With eight separate rehab programs studied, it found that three-year recidivism rates were nearly 14 percent lower for convicts who participated in the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Program than they were for a group of convicts that didn’t participate in the program. In fact, in only one of the eight programs studied did the recidivism rate actually increase — and only by one percentage point — in a smaller pre-release treatment initiative.

Hitting Rock Bottom and Staying There

While hitting rock bottom by being locked up may be instrumental in an addicted person’s decision to seek recovery treatment, there needs to be treatment options available for him or her to seek. Otherwise, substance abusers aren’t just hitting rock bottom — they’re staying there as prisoners with no help for the very problems that landed them there in the first place. And instead of being on the road to recovery, they’re likely on the road to learning how to score drugs in prison or how to become more effective, more hardened criminals.

Treatment instead of jail time, on the other hand, offers drug offenders a path that doesn’t run directly through a general population comprised of violent, hardcore and career criminals. This is why the number of judges doling out mandatory treatment rather than jail time for sentencing is on the rise.

Court-Ordered Drug Treatment

Some people may think that going to drug treatment instead of jail is only an option for the rich and famous, based on the number of law-breaking celebs heading off to court-ordered rehab on a regular basis. Like anything in life, it never hurts to have money, power or access to both, but being sentenced to rehab instead of jail time isn’t just for tabloid types.

Laws and sentencing requirements vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but there are essentially three ways to get treatment instead of jail time: (1) a criminal court judge sentences a person to it, (2) a lawyer works out a deal with the prosecutor that includes the person attending a drug treatment program, or (3) a person is allowed to appear in drug court instead of regular criminal court.

Drug courts are specialized courts that are completely voluntary, participation-wise. They’re an alternative to conventional courts to help keep substance abusers out of the prison system. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are currently over 2,800 operating drug courts across the country, and they appear to be making a dent in keeping drug offenders out of prison.

The NIJ’s Adult Drug Court Evaluation found that drug court participants reported less criminal activity and fewer re-arrests than comparable offenders. It also concluded that participants reported less drug use (56 percent vs. 76 percent) and were less likely to fail a drug test (29 percent vs. 46 percent). While the cost of treatment was obviously higher for participants versus non-participants, NIJ’s research also concluded that drug courts saved an average of $5,680 to $6,208 per offender due to less recidivism.

Does Forced Rehab Work?

Some might argue that forced addiction treatment isn’t effective because drug offenders aren’t voluntarily choosing to enter treatment. But the National Institutes of Health states that most studies suggest that “outcomes for those who are legally pressured to enter treatment are as good as or better than outcomes for those who entered treatment without legal pressure.” And the very process of beginning court-ordered treatment is often instrumental in getting many addicted people to admit that they do in fact have a substance abuse problem.

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