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Recovery, Not Relapse: Why States are “Sentencing” Drug Users to Treatment Programs

Is Addiction a Crime?

America has been fighting a “War on Drugs” since the 1970s, with drug dealers and users alike facing strict criminal penalties.  Yet, opioid use and overdose have become a crisis despite the harsh punitive measures.  In an effort to prevent deaths from an opioid overdose, our federal government has proposed measures that focus on everything to the accessibility of recovery to even tighter controls on opioids.

Not all of these methods are equally effective—and some local governments are authorizing new programs focused on treatment, not punishment.  From increasing access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to establishing drug courts, Americans struggling with substance use now have options beyond a jail cell. 

Some locales have taken this philosophy even further: Seattle recently stopped prosecuting drug possession for users with less than one gram of a drug on their person.  Local officials, with resources stretched thin by drug cases, were inspired by Portugal’s successful movement to decriminalize drug use and offer treatment instead of punishment.  Evidence indicates that the Portuguese approach may help reverse America’s drug crisis.  But how will that look when translated to meet the struggles and needs of each state in the US?

How does alternative sentencing work?

In some cases, arrestees are offered alternatives before they go to trial.  This is the case in many state drug court programs.  Though they may have to admit guilt to be inducted into the program, drug users who choose to participate undergo a supervised, education-based program that helps them find sobriety.  Some programs require additional elements, such as counseling or continued participation in work, to help participants create structures that will outlast the program. 

In other cases, those arrested for drug use (or for crimes committed under the influence) may, after a trial, receive a court order to enroll in a rehabilitation program in lieu of a jail sentence.  Requirements range from traditional inpatient rehab to alcohol and drug education to community service.  The goal of these programs is to remove the damaging influence of drugs and alcohol from the participants’ lives, thus making them less likely to commit future crimes.

Leading the way in alternatives to jail

Americans have recently adopted a more liberal attitude toward drugs than they had at the height of the drug war.  Voters in 33 states have elected to make marijuana use legal—either for medical or recreational purposes—and each election seems to bring a new wave of marijuana-friendly laws.  Once a felony, marijuana use has expanded…with no signs of a “weed epidemic” sweeping the streets.

Being “tough on crime” leads to more recidivism than does taking a rehabilitative approach.  The same is true when it comes to drug use; studies have found that imprisonment rates have no correlation with drug use or overdose rates.  In light of this evidence, many states are opting to take a softer approach to addiction control.  More than half of the states in the US have opted to reduce “mandatory minimums” for drug offenses. 

In response to the opioid epidemic, many locales have also opted to establish or expand alternative sentencing programs like the ones mentioned above.  Rather than use resources on a jail sentence that ultimately does nothing for the underlying problem of addiction, they give nonviolent offenders a chance to work toward sobriety.  California is among these reform-minded states, and has one of the lowest drug imprisonment rates in the country (joined by other coastal states MA, WA, OR, NH, and NJ, all under 45%), 

Punitive measures are harmful, not helpful

Is it a good thing to skip jail entirely in cases of addiction?  After all, substance use can cause crime and even endanger others…right? 

If the goal of our criminal justice system is to reduce crime and build safer communities, jail isn’t the right answer when it comes to substance use. 

Only 10% of inmates with substance use disorders receive MAT within jails, while 90% may have little or no support when it comes to beating addiction.  In fact, being in jail may only pile onto the stressors that drove these individuals to seek out drugs in the first place, compounding the problem. 

Upon being released from jail, former drug users find themselves lacking stability: they are jobless, potentially homeless, and have a diminished support system of friends and family.  If they are trying to avoid drugs and alcohol, these former inmates may not even want to associate with old social groups for fear they will start using again.  On top of this, their tolerance for drugs has decreased—but their craving is likely going strong.  This creates the perfect storm for drug users: they are facing a harsh environment that makes them want to take the edge off, but their bodies are not ready for the large dosages that they had adapted to before their jail time. 

Treatment programs, on the other hand, address many of these issues head-on.  Rather than being thrown in jail and made to go “cold turkey” without any support, they provide the emotional and psychological help needed to successfully overcome addiction.  Because many of the programs allow, or even require, continued attendance to school or a job, participants do not lose their social networks or their means of making money.  And, if they feel those old cravings coming back, they know they have a group of peers who will help them persevere.  And, treatment programs provide transitional plans to help their patients re-integrate into their old lives without turning back to substance use.

It’s no wonder that participants in drug courts are more than twice as likely to successfully complete a treatment program than users who were jailed and then released on probation.

Another important difference between jail and treatment is the public perception and stigma that result.  Anyone who serves a jail sentence must be a criminal, and therefore a bad person.  Seeking treatment, however, is viewed as a sign of strength and self-awareness.  By allowing drug users to seek recovery rather than sit in jail, alternative sentencing policies are rewriting the narrative of addiction and helping to discourage the negative language that can impede recovery efforts.

Alternatives in California

Jail populations in California are steadily declining thanks to alternative sentencing options that help nonviolent offenders stay connected with their lives and communities during rehabilitation.

Some of the alternative sentences offered by the state include:

  • Voluntary house arrest, subject to restrictions and drug testing
  • Electronic monitors to sense drug or alcohol use
  • Performing community service or enrolling in a community work program
  • Regular attendance of a free 12-step program
  • Enrollment in approved treatment programs (either inpatient or outpatient)
  • Participation in Drug Diversion Probation or California Drug Court

No one wants to be addicted…and when the criminal justice system allows drug users to access help rather than taking harmful punitive measures, drug use and overdose rates drop.