Sentencing Alternatives: Treatment vs Incarceration for Drug Offenders

Over the last nearly 50 years, an overwhelming amount of evidence has shown that the United States’ “war on drugs” has been an abject failure when compared to sentencing alternatives.

Incarceration rates for drug offenses remain constant as law enforcement, much like the fabled Dutch Boy plugging leaks in the dam with his finger, finds it impossible to stop the flow of illicit substances into communities around the country.

There is another, far more effective option – sentencing alternatives like addiction treatment and mental health diversion for drug offenders instead of incarceration.

Sentencing Alternatives - Addiction Treatment vs Incarceration for Drug Offenders

It’s a widely understood fact that addiction is a medical illness and a public health issue, according to government agencies like the National Institutes of Health.

But rather than address this chronic disease, people are sentenced to lengthy prison stays where there are little to no resources for helping them recover from this treatable condition.

Not only is this system ineffective for people suffering from addiction who deserve compassion, but it also costs the nation trillions of dollars.

The data on sentencing alternatives is staggering and includes the following:

  • The U.S. government spent an estimated $9.2 million daily in 2015 to imprison people charged with drug-related offenses, totaling more than $3.3 billion every year. State governments spent another $7 billion that same year.
  • Of the approximately 456,000 individuals in prison, one-fifth have been incarcerated for drug-related crimes. An additional 1.15 million are on parole or probation for the same reason.
  • Research shows that incarceration has little effect on reducing substance abuse rates, and actually makes the situation worse. The leading cause of death among recently released individuals is, in fact, drug overdose. The risk of overdose among those recently released from prison is 129 percent higher than those in the general population.
  • A report by the U.S. Department of Justice suggests that two-thirds of inmates charged with drug offenses will return to prison within three years of being released. About half of them return for simply failing a drug test.

Regardless of the politics surroundings drug laws, it is clear that incarceration does little to reduce the rates of substance abuse and, in some critical ways, actually makes the public health crisis worse.

Sentencing alternatives to addressing this problem have not only proven more effective, they have resulted in:

  • Lower crime rates
  • Safer communities
  • Better employment numbers
  • Saved millions and millions of dollars in the process

Sentencing Alternatives - Programs for Drug Offenders

Sentencing Alternatives – Programs For Drug Offenders

Several states coping with overcrowded prisons and extremely high recidivism rates, some as a result of the opioid epidemic, have taken steps to move away from the “zero tolerance” drug policies and substitute them with a more compassionate, science-based approach like sentencing alternatives.

Alternative Sentencing Programs operate on the evidence-based practice that addiction treatment is far more effective than sentencing drug offenders to prison where there is a serious lack of mental health care.

For many offenders in alternative sentencing programs, it is their first opportunity to receive medically supervised rehabilitation treatment that addresses the disease of addiction and increases the likelihood of recovery.

In most cases, these programs are only eligible for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no previous criminal record.

In order to qualify, they must:

1. Receive an evaluation
2. Demonstrate a willingness to change
3. Undergo a drug or alcohol addiction treatment program

As the success of these programs continues to grow, experts and health care professionals are hopeful that the requirements for an alternative sentence may be expanded to those with a longer record of nonviolent drug offenses, those imprisoned because of a lifetime struggle with addiction.

Addiction Treatment vs. Jail – Mental Health Diversion

California is one of the states pushing the boundaries on Alternative Sentencing and Mental Health Diversion Programs.

In 2000, the state established “collaborative justice courts,” including specialized drug courts and mental health courts with the goal of problem solving before prison sentences.

California also has a mental health diversion law that authorizes courts to allow offenders to receive treatment in lieu of jail or prison time. If an individual completes treatment, the charges are dismissed.

These efforts have paid off for the state of California.

Though it was an expensive challenge for California to establish these alternative sentencing programs, officials estimate that the state will save around $150 million in the coming years, but there has already been substantial headway made on the issue of recidivism.

California Alternative Sentencing Programs witnessed the following statistics:

  • Incarceration rates dropped by 85 percent
  • Convictions were reduced by 77 percent
  • Arrests among participants that completed treatment fell by another 85 percent

The employment statistics coming out of California’s alternative sentencing efforts were even more striking.

At the end of the drug court programs, 70 percent of participants were employed, compared to the 40 percent employment of those just starting the program.

Addiction Treatment vs Jail

Seattle, Washington, has also embraced alternative sentencing programs. Hit hard by the opioid epidemic, local officials created the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.

Instead of officers being forced to make low-level drug offense arrests, LEAD provided individuals with the opportunity for social services, including addiction treatment.

City law enforcement found that 58 percent of individuals diverted to the alternative sentencing programs did not re-offend compared to those arrested who did not receive alternative sentencing.

There are dozens of other examples of success with alternative sentencing programs, but one report by the Justice Policy Institute sums up the benefit of this approach.

“Treatment delivered in the community is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent [drug-related] crimes and costs approximately $20,000 less than incarceration per person per year.

…Releasing people to supervision and making treatment accessible is an effective way of reducing problematic drug use, reducing crime associated with drug use and reducing the number of people in prison,” write the authors.

Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Sentencing Alternatives

It’s clear that prisons are ill-equipped to handle or rehabilitate inmates that come to these institutions for drug charges related to untreated addiction. And in an overwhelming number of cases, additional mental health issues as well.

Co-occurring disorders, also referred to as a dual diagnosis, describe the presence of a substance use disorder and a mental illness together, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder or other conditions.

Drug and alcohol abuse is common among people with untreated mental health problems because it is a way to self-medicate and numb the many debilitating symptoms mental illness creates.

When a dual diagnosis is present, regardless of whether the addiction or the mental illness came first, each condition only makes the other worse.

There is very little chance of recovery if both illnesses are not treated at the same time.

For example, when someone with a co-occurring disorder is forced into sobriety while in prison, it is unlikely they will experience much improvement without treatment for their specific mental health problem.

Programs for sentencing alternatives embrace a compassionate and cost effective approach that allows people to receive treatment that addresses not just the disease of addiction, but any underlying mental health issues that drive their self-destructive behavior.

Iris Healing®, in Woodland Hills, California, is committed to helping clients that suffer from more than just addiction.

Incorporating a variety of therapeutic modalities, from Neurofeedback and Brainspotting Therapy to meditation, peer groups and one-on-one therapy, Iris Healing® will never judge our clients based on past mistakes.

Instead, we are proud to help those unnecessarily entangled with the criminal justice system to avoid incarceration and lead a healthy, clean, and productive life in recovery.