Are they really criminals? Drug users should be rehabilitated, not punished

Are they really criminals? Drug users should be rehabilitated, not punished

Photo by Luis Argerich

Brent has been sent to jail numerous times for heroin use since he was 18. The addiction was strong and sometimes, to momentarily feel better, he used an old needle with dried blood. Things were out of control; Brent would have done almost anything to get some heroin in his system. In jail, there was little focus on rehabilitation, and each time he was released, he was handed a welfare check and sent out into the world without a support system in place that could help him reintegrate into society and cope with his addiction. According to Brent, jail “reinforces the addictive behavior when there is no mechanism in place to help them with their disease.” This story, facilitated through Open Society Foundations, is unfortunately not unique.

The United States houses 25% of the world’s prison population, yet only 5% of the entire global population live in the United States. Approximately one-quarter of American prisoners are convicted of drug-related offenses. While incarcerated, these prisoners have few opportunities to work and obtain an education, but they still need to be fed, clothed, and housed. According to a 2012 study released by the Vera Institute of Justice, each prisoner costs, on average, over $30,000 annually. Urban locations have significantly higher incarceration costs. In New York City, each prisoner costs taxpayers over $160,000 per year. If you account for the nearly 2.2 million prisoners in the United States, the investment is high for a less than desirable return: approximately two thirds of released prisoners return to a jail cell. It is evident there are serious problems with America’s prison system.

In 1980, imprisonment rates rose dramatically. Not coincidentally, the “War on Drugs” changed legal policies and introduced sentencing minimums; those convicted of certain crimes must be punished by a minimum amount of years in jail. Mandatory minimum sentencing limits judicial discretion in favor of ironclad rules. As a result, more than half of prisoners at the federal level are incarcerated because of drug offenses. The laws subjecting drug abusers to years in prison may be well-intentioned, but their consequences are counterproductive. They further marginalize low-income minorities, dramatically increase the number of incarcerated persons in our prison system, and usually fail to rehabilitate drug abusers.

Harsh drug sentencing guidelines create a blatantly unequal racial distribution of punishments within America’s judicial system. Two-thirds of all prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses are people of color. One in three black men and one in six latino men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives, compared to just one in nine white men. Police often look for drug offenders in poor, urban areas, which tend to be populated by minorities. Consequentially, there is an influx of minorities in prison as well as certain drugs that are more likely to cause incarceration. Cocaine is probably the most potent example of this disparity. There are two different forms of cocaine that are prominently used, crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Pharmacologically, the two are identical. Crack cocaine is sold at lower prices, so it is more attainable for lower-income individuals. Powder cocaine, on the other hand, is much more expensive. In 2000, over 80% of crack cocaine users were African American while they accounted for only 30% of all powder cocaine users.

According to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine yields five years in prison for a first offense. The same sentence requires possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. This mandatory sentence imprisons more low-income African Americans because of the higher punishment rate on a drug that is more accessible and popularly used by this population. Strict sentences remove educational and economic opportunities from low-income African Americans yet they could benefit the most from structural programs that encourage alternative lifestyles to drug abuse.

In 2007, there were approximately 1.8 million arrests for drug use violations. This includes the unlawful possession, sale, use, growing, manufacturing or production of illicit drugs. Eighty percent of those arrests were solely for possession. The United States incarcerates the most people for drug offenses in the world, and the number is rising rapidly: in 1980 there were less than 400,000 behind bars; now there are approximately 2 million. We have decided that drug use is a criminal act, and treat non-violent addicts as safety threats to our society. If you are an individual incarcerated under a nonviolent drug offense, you will have difficulty finding a job, are no longer eligible for student loans, will very likely lose your right to vote, and possibly could be deported back to a country that you have never lived in. If we consider those who abuse substances to be perpetrators in society, then naturally we should imprison them for our own safety. On the other hand, if we approach these circumstances as racial, health-based, or economic issues, casting addicts as criminals does not address the core issues of the problem.

By criminalizing drug use, we encourage both those curious enough to experiment and those who are addicted to form unhealthy practices that increase the chance of self-harm and impose greater costs on society. Over 200,000 students have lost federal financial aid eligibility because of a drug conviction, yet we often argue that increasing education is essential to reducing drug use. In 2012, 1.6 million people were arrested on nonviolent drug charges. It is likely that these drug prisoners will return to the community, but incarceration has not dealt with the core issues that led to the original incarceration. According to the Justice Policy Institute, the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program in New York saves the state nearly 50% in costs to maintain the participant, and in Maryland alternative sanctions has reduced the annual price of housing an offender from $20,000 to $4,000. Taxpayers should not be paying such high costs for drug abusers to be incarcerated when rehabilitation costs are significantly cheaper.

Further economic reasoning to place drug offenders in rehabilitation treatment outside of prison is based on cost benefit analysis. Therapeutic treatment in prison provides a return of $1.91 for every dollar spent, while treatment administered outside of prison results in $8.87 returned for every dollar invested. Furthermore, completing these drug rehabilitation programs does more than reduce substance use and relapse rates. Graduates of these programs are more likely to be employed than they were before entering the program.  From an economic standpoint, they can contribute to economic growth while no longer being a cost to society.

Attaching punishment to rehabilitation appears to be counterproductive. We need to recognize that addiction is not something individuals overcome overnigh but struggle with on a daily basis. When drug abusers are punished for a relapse, either by spending a short time in jail or facing extended prison time, the columns of strength that encourage their recovery, such as family support or job opportunities, begin to collapse. In this vicious cycle, punishment eliminates factors crucial in the recovery process.

Imprisonment, overall, is not an unnecessary measure. There are people who choose to drastically harm other citizens and are a legitimate security threat to society.  However, those that abuse drugs do not fall under this category. With the “War on Drugs,” low-income minorities have been unfairly targeted and the incarceration rates have skyrocketed. The result of this is not reduced substance abuse rates, but rather a waste of taxpayer dollars on an unsuccessful method of dealing with the root issues. There are many structural circumstances that led to these individuals becoming addicts, and then being caught. However, even if these individuals are criminals and not victims, there is no justification for imprisonment. From time spent in a program to societal benefit afterwards, increasing rehabilitation opportunities for nonviolent drug offenders will benefit society as a whole.

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