According to the Bureau of Prisons, there are about 216,000 inmates in the federal prisons. Half of them are there for drug charges. Mandatory sentencing for drug charges—a relic from the “War on Drugs”—and the fact that parole is not available to federal prisoners have contributed to a ballooning of the nonviolent drug-offender portion of the federal prison population.
Research indicates that incarceration is not the most cost-effective—nor the most beneficial, for the offender or society as a whole—solution to the issue of drug use in the US. Even former lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key conservatives are questioning the efficacy of imprisonment for minor drug offenses, and libertarians are crying “Foul” on the issue. In this environment, the current administration is able to live up to some of its promise as a progressive regime. Attorney General Eric Holder has announced his endorsement for a proposal to revise federal sentencing guidelines.
Although the effects will be modest, they are a nod toward the notion that drug abuse should be viewed as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice matter. Holder acknowledged that states that are moving away from prison construction and toward treatment are already seeing benefits in terms of lower rates of recidivism, lower crime, and cost savings.
Most addicts find themselves involved in a criminal environment even if their only illegal act is to use a controlled substance: they have to acquire the substance, and that means interfacing with a criminal element. If an addict winds up incarcerated—as most eventually do—the minimal possibilities for rehabilitation are dwarfed by the massive exposure to a culture of hardened criminality. Without medical intervention—treatment for addiction—the incarcerated drug user absorbs the influences of this environment and eventually leaves prison defenseless against relapse.
Diversion to treatment has been shown in numerous states to be a preferable method of managing those facing drug charges. Treating addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal one addresses the underlying causes and conditions that drive addiction. If relapse rates are minimized, the revolving-door syndrome of addicts coming in and out of the penal system will decline, and former addicts will have a chance to reintegrate into the work-world, family life, and society at large.