Should Drug Addicts Go to Jail? This Study Says No

The United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, and yet, we house about 25 percent of the world’s prisoner population. Nearly 300,000 of the people currently incarcerated (in both U.S. state and federal prisons) are being held for drug-law violations: drug dealing, drug possession, illicit drug use. In 1980, just thirty-seven years ago, there were less than 25,000 prisoners in for drug-related crimes.

The nation’s drug problem has consistently grown over the last few decades – both in jails and on the streets. The question remains, how can we combat it? Many government officials and American citizens alike are asking: Should drug addicts go to jail? Will tougher penalties mean less drug crime? Will stiffer prison terms deter drug use, specifically amidst a growing opiate epidemic?

According to Pew Charitable Trusts, along with thousands of other Americans and addiction experts, the answer is no. And Pew has brought the data to back it. Just last month, in late June 2017, their analysts released a study on the effectiveness of imprisonment for drug offenders. They looked at state-by-state data of drug offender incarceration rates alongside illicit drug use, drug overdose deaths, and arrests only to find that no statistically significant relationship existed between them. Sending drug addicts to jail does not defeat the nation’s war against drugs – integrated addiction treatment does.

Pew’s study was driven by the notion that, if putting drug addicts and offenders in jail was actually effective, then states would experience lower rates of drug abuse. What they found, however, was that higher rates of imprisonment did not correlate with lower rates of drug abuse, drug arrests, nor drug overdose fatalities.

These findings add to the mounting data and dialogue buoying the fact that jail time is not a solution for drug abuse. A 2014 National Research Council study also supports this data, stating that drug sentencing “ha[s] few, if any, deterrent effects.”

Pew included their research in a letter to Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and head of President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, who also has an intimate connection to drug addiction. The goal of the letter was to encourage reform in the way our country tackles the addiction (specifically opioid) crisis.

Their research, at the same time and somewhat indirectly, goes against a common misconception in the United States: that drug addiction is a moral failing; that addiction deserves harsh punishment over treatment. Fact of the matter is, addiction is a disease much like diabetes or hypertension. While the initial choice to use drugs is voluntary, addiction itself grows over time and is very difficult to control. It is complex. Those who are addicted cannot always quit drugs on their own. And they are not always able to recognize when enough is enough, when a problem exists, when help is needed. Like other chronic diseases, addiction requires long-term, repeated care.

So, if jail time isn’t it, what is the solution to drug addiction?

According to Pew Charitable Trusts, “The most effective response to the growth in opioid misuse, research suggests, is a combination of law enforcement to curtail trafficking and halt the emergence of new markets; alternative sentencing to divert nonviolent drug offenders from costly imprisonment; treatment to reduce dependency and recidivism; and prevention efforts that can identify individuals at high risk for developing substance use disorders.” They also specifically suggest that different approaches be developed, such as harm-reduction strategies and training (e.g. overdose prevention with naloxone) as well as diverting offenders with substance use disorders into treatment.

The state of Kentucky is already taking a step in the right direction. In 2015, they enacted a law that eliminates barriers to drug treatment in county jails and provides funding for evidence-based behavioral health or medication-assisted treatment for inmates with an opioid use disorder. The law also permits local health departments to establish needle exchange sites, increases access to naloxone (a prescription drug shown to counter the effects of an opioid overdose), and connects those who recover from an overdose to addiction treatment services.

There is no doubt that combined, integrated drug treatment programs are the best alternative for combatting drug addiction. Not only do these programs help a person overcome compulsive drug cravings, they also teach users how to live a satisfying, productive, and drug-free life long-term. Drug treatment also targets and treats every aspect of a person’s addiction: not only his or her physical drug abuse, but also the mental health issues and emotional traumas that lay behind it. Other addiction experts agree. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “most people who get into and remain in treatment stop using drugs, decrease their criminal activity, and improve their occupational, social, and psychological functioning.”

The question, “Should drug addicts go to jail?” is a multi-sided one that is followed by an ongoing debate. Yet Pew’s research has shown that the effectiveness of jail time cannot be proven with statistical evidence. Consider the 80 percent of Americans who are in favor of ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and the 80 percent who support drug treatment and job training programs as positive alternatives to jail time, and your answer may become a bit more clear.

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