Why Rehab Is Better for Addicts Than Jail
The way addicts are treated in society almost seems counter intuitive. Most people believe that jail time is the best option, but studies show that imprisonment does nothing to cure drug addiction. Let’s take a closer look at the rehab vs. prison issue to determine why rehab is better for heroin addicts than jail.
It’s a Disease
A number of experts have concluded that drug addiction and abuse are a disease. The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes it as a “chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her.”
The addiction treatment establishment, the public, lawmakers and the people we rely on to enforce laws tend to view addicts in a different light, and ignoring the core reasons for drug addiction makes it difficult for addicts to receive the treatment they need. Our society needs to be tough on crime, but current measures to punish and rehabilitate addicts simply haven’t worked.
From research, we now understand that the initial decision to use heroin may have been voluntary, but changes in an addicted person’s brain take place over time. These changes make it extremely difficult for them to end their drug addiction on their own.
The common misconception is that if addicts had more willpower, they would be able to stop using. This is pure fantasy and doesn’t take into account the powerful hold that an addiction can have on an individual.
In 2013, nearly 10 percent of the US population (24.6 million people) had reported using an illicit drug within the past month (this doesn’t take into account people who didn’t report their usage and this of course means the real number is likely much higher), according to statistics released by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The survey results indicated that 596,000 people had a dependence or abuse issue with heroin.
Rehab vs. Prison: The Issue of Sending Addicts to Jail
No one would reasonably argue that people who are found guilty of opiate trafficking do not deserve prison time. There are plenty of existing laws that provide strict punishments for those found guilty of these crimes. What most people don’t know is that most offenders sent to jail are not found guilty of trafficking. In fact, 80% of convictions related to drug related crimes are for possession.
In many instances, mandatory sentences are used, which means the judge has no flexibility when determining how to sentence a person accused of this type of crime. A guilty verdict means the judge is required to sentence an offender to a minimum stay in jail or prison — depending on the state.
A stigma exists around drug addiction, and politicians and law enforcement officials want to ensure that people who break the law are punished — and tough punishments are often preferred. Some opiates like Heroin are classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it has no medical use and a high potential for abuse.
It’s easy to argue that there is no legitimate reason for someone to use heroin, so they deserve the consequences imposed under the law. Sending addicts to jail will supposedly teach them a lesson and require them to detox from drugs by forcing abstinence upon them. People who hold this opinion believe the addict will emerge from their time behind bars cured of their drug addiction, ready to live a life of sobriety. With fewer customers for drug dealers to target, drugs consumers are eliminated and the market will dry up. Unfortunately, the data conclusively proves otherwise.
Imposing harsher sentences on people convicted of crimes seemed like a good strategy many years ago. From the1960s through the 1980s, there was an increase in crime rates. As a result, imposing harsher penalties for drug related offenses — including imposing mandatory sentences — seemed to lower crime rates and deter others from committing similar crimes.
Next came the “three strikes” laws, which allowed states to impose mandatory life sentences for a convicted felon who has two or more previous convictions, one of which is a violent crime and the other a serious drug offense. This quickly added to the growth in prison populations. These provisions also mandated that people convicted of a crime must serve more of their sentence and would be less likely to be released early for good behavior.
The policy of mandatory jail time for addicts underscores the presumption that these people did something horribly wrong and deserved to be punished severely.
How Does Imprisonment Affect the Addict?
Just because addicts are sentenced to prison and are forced to temporarily give up drugs, that doesn’t mean they’re cured. In fact, the evidence suggests otherwise. It’s important to remember that drug addiction is a long-term, chronic disease of the brain. Removing a user’s drug of choice doesn’t make the urge to use go away — it only means that the urge cannot be fulfilled.
Another thing to remember is that a stint in prison doesn’t always mean abstinence. In many prison facilities, drugs are being smuggled in, so there’s no guarantee a prison sentence will result in abstinence. Prison doesn’t do anything to treat the underlying issues plaguing a heroin addict, and it surely doesn’t help to encourage sobriety.
Further, an unexpected consequence that politicians and law enforcement officials likely did not anticipate when they envisioned stiffer penalties for all drug crimes: Placing non-violent and violent offenders in the same facility means that the addicts will learn how to become better criminals from their fellow inmates. An addict may not be a violent person before spending time in prison, but the incarcerated environment is not conducive to teaching anyone how to be soft and non-aggressive. Putting addicts in prison for what can be several years does not teach them how to behave well in society when they are released.
When inmates are released from prison, they haven’t learned any coping skills to deal with the underlying causes of their drug addiction. When you couple that with the stresses of adjusting to life after being incarcerated and the difficulties that parolees face with finding suitable employment and housing, it’s not surprising that addicts who have not had addiction treatment relapse. Once they do, they are risk for being arrested for not only drug-related offenses, but other crimes as well.
Addicts looking to feed a habit are known to commit property crimes — such as theft, break-ins, shoplifting and robberies — in order to get money to buy drugs. If they are unable to find a job or hold onto one because of their drug addiction — and either scenario is probable due to their record of incarceration and the fact they are using drugs — the likelihood of coming into contact with the justice system after being released from prison increases.
Prison vs. Rehab for Addicts
Offering addicts a chance to deal with their illness and heal makes more sense. If we accept the argument that addiction is a disease, why spend so much time, energy and money punishing people who are sick after they’re arrested for only possession? We should treat them for their disease instead. We don’t penalize people living with other medical conditions in the same way. Repeat offenders and people caught distributing and trafficking heroin should be punished accordingly, but an offender caught with a small amount of the drug for personal use is probably a good candidate for treatment, not prison. Most current laws don’t offer anyone that opportunity, so the system doesn’t work well for anyone convicted of a non-violent type of crime involving possession without intent to traffic.
An inpatient rehab facility is a far better environment for addicts in recovery. In rehab, patients operate on a highly structured schedule, yet still have much more personal freedom than would inmates in prison. The day will be divided into set times for meals, counseling sessions, 12-step program meetings, recreation and free time. There will be a set time when clients are expected to be in their rooms at night.
Unlike prison, the focus is not on punishment — the focus is on rehabilitation. People in rehab acquire the skills and habits they need to resist cravings. They also rebuild their self-esteem after being at the mercy of their addiction.
Family counseling is available to help loved ones deal with their own pain and to educate them about drug addiction. Their help and support is an important part of the heroin addict’s plan for achieving long-term sobriety after leaving the residential addiction treatment program.
Steering addicts to a rehab program gives them the chance to get clean and have a fresh start. A court-ordered program puts them in a position to decide to get help or go to prison. This situation makes them face the seriousness of the matter in a way that family and friends may not have been able to make clear to them. And this option is much less expensive to taxpayers than putting drug offenders in prison.