In the 1970s, public sentiment surrounding drug addiction shifted toward imprisonment and punishment for drug addiction. Yet in the years since, a rising prison population has not correlated with a decrease in the problem of addiction.

More recently, however, individuals, governments, and those directly involved with addiction treatment are coming around to a view that places emphasis on treating addiction as a disease rather than locking up addicts.

In some of the hardest-hit regions of the US, such as West Virginia, which has a major opioid addiction crisis, even people with strong “law and order” philosophies are questioning the effectiveness of punishing addicts rather than getting them the treatment they need. A Pew Research study found that two-thirds of Americans now believe that treatment, rather than incarceration, should be the focus when communities deal with heroin and cocaine abuse.

People Prefer that Prisons House Violent Offenders

Prison overcrowding is an issue throughout America, and rather than just building more prisons, most people would prefer that prison space be used to house violent criminals. Granted, some drug offenders are violent offenders, but many are not. While being in prison can mean getting clean for lack of alternatives, this is not the same thing as addiction treatment. Addiction treatment must have a strong component of learning how to cope with the stressors and triggers addicts will face once they are back in their familiar environment, and prison rarely offers programs that facilitate this.

Costs and Recurrence of Drug Use: Treatment vs. Prison

Some argue that addiction treatment is expensive. Incarceration is expensive too, and over time, addiction treatment early in a person’s addiction is more likely to produce a positive return on investment. Without treatment in prison, people are likely to resume drug use once their sentence is up, landing them right back in custody.

When this happens repeatedly, the costs rapidly outpace the costs of addiction treatment. Moreover, addiction treatment typically includes creating a network of support that clients can turn to when they face triggers or situations that cause them to want to resume using drugs. Prison does not.

Americans Favor Treatment Rather Than Prison for Addicts

What About Prison-Based Treatment?

Addiction treatment for prisoners with addictions could take place in the prison environment, couldn’t it? Yes, but many prisons do not offer addiction treatment, and the expenses involved with incarceration alone mean there are not a lot of resources for providing addiction treatment for inmates. The result is addicts who “get clean” behind bars but receive no help in learning how to stay off drugs once they are back out in the community. Keeping addicts out of prison and in treatment programs is proving to be a much wiser use of resources.

Non-Prison-Based Treatment Simply Works Better

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Providing alcohol and drug abuse treatment instead of jail is one of the surest ways to put drug-dependent adults on the path to recovery and to prevent juveniles with drug problems from becoming adult criminals.”

The so-called drug courts that divert addicts from incarceration to treatment programs are able to break the cycle of addiction that is rarely broken by an addict repeatedly using drugs on the outside and being re-arrested.

Drug addiction is a disease with physical, mental, and behavioral dimensions, and addiction treatment must address all these dimensions to be effective. Rarely do prison environments offer addiction treatment that fully prepares people for life on the outside. More jurisdictions are seeing the positive results of diversion programs like drug courts (which involve addiction treatment programs) and realizing that money once spent on incarcerating people is better spent on helping them receive addiction treatment that really can help them turn their lives around.

Addiction is complex, and recovery takes time and hard work. Real help for this disease is available, and it is possible to avoid or break the cycle of drug use and incarceration. If you or someone you love is suffering from the disease of addiction, we invite you to click to learn more about our admissions. 

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