Drug abuse and addiction are often closely tied to the justice system, as those who do drugs and are impaired by drugs experience trouble with charges such as possession, driving while under the influence, domestic violence, theft, and child endangerment. Sometimes getting in trouble with the law serves as a very real wake-up call for those caught up with substance abuse. How the court system handles these cases can have lasting impacts on the individual, their family, and the community as a whole.
Courts commonly sentence individuals to time in jail for crimes related to drug abuse. If the person is addicted, simply serving jail time is not necessarily the best thing for the individual, and it might even be harmful. Judges, attorneys, and everyone involved with the court system needs to be educated about the disease of addiction so that they can sentence these individuals fairly, but with a punishment that would offer them the best chance at success in the long run. The last thing we want to do is set these individuals up for relapse and recidivism.
Problems with Incarceration
Some would argue that spending time in jail gives the individual time to think and feel sorry for their drug offense. It allows them time to sober up, and the unpleasantness of jail time makes them understand the severity of their crime. However, this is not often the case. Individuals who are addicted to drugs might go through a difficult withdrawal while in jail, but if they are able to put in their time, they may quickly relapse and go back to using as soon as they have the chance when they get out. Others understand how serious their drug abuse is, and have the best intentions of remaining sober, but without proper treatment and therapy, are unable to withstand the temptations they face to use when they get back to their normal lives. Still, others don’t even try to get sober while in jail, and secretly buy drugs and get high while incarcerated.
What should be done with those who break the law because of drug abuse or addiction? First and foremost, we need to consider the individual’s history and their willingness to get clean. For nonviolent offenders, we also need to consider the options available to the person and find one that will help them stop the drug abuse and learn how to live a sober life once again. After all, when we take away the drug abuse, we take away most of the motives for the crime.
Drugs and Crime Statistics
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
- Approximately one-third of heroin users pass through the criminal justice system.
- 70% of male prisoners were drug abusers which is significant compared to the 11.2% rate of drug abuse in the entire male population.
The Children’s Bureau states that at least two-thirds of child services cases involve parental substance use.
According to 2012 statistics from the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS):
- The total correctional population is estimated to be 6,937,600, with 4,794,000 individuals on probation or under parole supervision, and drug law violations accounting for the most common type of criminal offense.
- In a survey of State and Federal prisoners, BJS estimated that about half of the prisoners met Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for drug abuse or dependence, and yet fewer than 20 percent who needed treatment received it.
- Of those surveyed, 14.8 percent of State and 17.4 percent of Federal prisoners reported having received drug treatment since admission.
Case by Case Basis
Several cases lately have captured the attention of those who advocate for better treatment for those convicted of drug crimes. In one case in Clinton County, New York, a young man who violated a court order was ordered off of Suboxone, a recovery drug that was helping him remain sober.
Sally Friedman, legal director at Legal Action Center in New York, believes that in this case, the judge was simply uneducated about the disease of addiction. “What happens is judges prohibit people from being on medication-assisted treatment,” Friedman said in an interview. “They give them these arbitrary timetables to come off. It could be three weeks or four months; it’s completely arbitrary. Then their lawyers—if they even have a lawyer—they don’t object. That’s what happens when people don’t understand addiction and effective treatment.”
In other cases, however, judges are seen as taking too strict of a stance to get individuals into treatment. In the Supreme Court case Commonwealth vs. Plasse, the court ruled that “in circumstances in which a defendant specifically requests a judge’s consideration of his or her substance abuse issues and related need to complete a rehabilitative program while incarcerated, the judge may take these factors into account.” In this case, 21-year-old Plasse requested that the judge sentence her to jail along with treatment, so that she would be forced to enter rehab.
While this decision has many people upset that the courts would have this kind of power, Justice David Lowy explained that each person’s history needs to be taken into consideration. “From crafting special conditions of probation to determining the appropriate disposition for a defendant who has violated one of those conditions, judges should act with flexibility, sensitivity, and compassion when dealing with people who suffer from drug addiction,” Lowy wrote.
Treatment is the Key
Finally, we know that treatment is the best way to help an individual put an end to their drug addiction, and in doing so, help them stay out of the justice system. We as a society need to focus on creating awareness about the need for and benefits of rehab for drug addiction. By connecting individuals with programs that help them safely detox from their substance, and by helping them incorporate healthy stress management techniques that will help them stay sober, we can end the cycle of addiction and crime.