It has long been debated as to what is the most effective way to deal with criminal drug offenders. When a person is caught using or carrying illegal drugs, they have obviously committed a crime, as using and possessing certain drugs is illegal. The question is, is it really a crime to suffer from an addiction? Many believe that addiction itself should be treated as a purely medical issue and not a criminal one.

The country is fairly split down the middle regarding this issue. Some believe that drug addicts should just be locked up in jail to keep them out of our communities. Others believe that drug addicts should not be incarcerated but should receive treatment instead. Even if a person favors incarceration, we can almost all agree that addicts need help, even if they do have to get it in jail. The question is if the quality of help they are getting in jail is sufficient to keep them from going right back to using when they get out of jail.

Drug Treatment in Prison

Harry K. Wexler and Douglas S. Lipton wrote a book about incarceration and drug treatment called Treating Drug Problems: Volume 2: Commissioned Papers on Historical, Institutional, and Economic Contexts of Drug Treatment. The book talks about the disparity of how addiction is treated in America, and how we almost always choose incarceration over rehabilitation. From the book:

  • “Since the 1970s, when retribution replaced rehabilitation as the dominant sentencing philosophy, prison populations have climbed dramatically while crime has continued unabated.  The public outcry against sharply rising crime rates during the early 1970s led politicians to call for more certain and severe sentences. A strong belief that corrections could not rehabilitate offenders was fueled by research studies that essentially concluded that ‘nothing works’ (Lipton et al., 1975; Martinson, 1974).”

The authors continue:

  • “As rehabilitation fell into disfavor, determinant sentencing and persistent felony offender laws were enacted.  Legislators also responded to the alarming increase in drug abuse during the 1980s by mandating tougher sentences against drug dealers and users.  As a result of the new sentencing laws, the nation’s prisons became full of serious drug-abusing offenders, many of them recidivists. Looking for ways to reduce recidivism and control overcrowding (and recognizing the close connection between substance abuse and crime), correctional authorities have begun expanding prison-based drug treatment programs during the past few years.”

The authors are optimistic that prisons are finally seeing the value in offering treatment to their addicted prisoners, which can dramatically reduce recidivism rates. The authors also insist that no jail-based addiction program can ever be as effective as a true inpatient rehab facility.

Typically, the types of services that jails can offer addicted prisoners are very limited, usually just some kind of group counseling sessions or meetings. Some prisons offer courses and educational programs to help inmates learn about the risks and dangers of drug and alcohol addiction. Still, a prison won’t ever be able to offer the full scope of services that an inpatient rehab can.

The bottom line is that drug addicts need real professional rehab. The kinds of treatment services offered in jail are just not extensive and intensive enough to be a real solution. Non-violent drug offenders should be routed through an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program in order to truly address the issue. Only at facilities like these can an addict truly hope to get and stay clean, which will also keep them out of the criminal justice system in the future.