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Legal Issue or Health Crisis?
On the heels of a staggering report that claims that 65% of all prison inmates are suffering from addiction, the criminal justice system needs to ask itself this question: should addiction be treated like a crime? Or is it a health crisis that our country is failing to properly address?
In late November, the U.S. Surgeon General did something that has never happened before. Vivek Murthy, who has been in the position since 2014, expressed his belief that addiction is in fact a public health crisis. Addiction, according to Murthy, is not “ a moral failing, but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency and compassion”.
But if the US is going to view addiction and substance abuse as a health issue, treated by physical and mental health services, it is going to need to look closely at the criminal justice and prison systems, where most of the substance abuse currently ends up. Currently, there are over 300,000 prisoners incarcerated on drug charges.
The Problems With Prison
Prison is not the place to treat an epidemic of this proportion. Doing so is not fair to the inmates or the public tax dollars. Mona Lynch, the author of Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court, says “The criminal-justice system is, of course, a really expensive way to deliver health care. The punitive side of it can be counterproductive, particularly for addicts.” Currently, this crisis costs our country over 440 billion, and that number will keep climbing as long as the number of addicts does. And, seeing that 76 million people abused drugs or alcohol in just the last year, this isn’t a problem that is going away anytime soon. Treating addicts like criminals only adds to the stigma and cost of substance abuse.
And it doesn’t work. The sad truth is that many addicts are not identified until they are in trouble with the law and behind bars. And prison drug abuse programs are organized with harsh penalties, which Lynch says fail because they promote the “one strike and you’re out” method. But, “there are going to be failures, there are going to be setbacks,” Lynch continues. And if we don’t understand this, we can’t truly treat the issue.
Unfortunately, like much else in our criminal justice system, those who have means and money often go to expensive private treatment centers before they are arrested. And, since prisons pull more tax dollars than public health institutions, the correct places for this treatment often don’t have the resources to deliver it. But prisons are overcrowded and overburdened, too. Earlier this year, I discussed this problem and its consequences in detail.
How can this be fixed?
There is some light at the end of the tunnel. To combat this growing problem, many cities are lessening or eliminating prison sentences for drug crimes in favor of increased counseling or drug treatment programs. Working to remove the stigma attached to addiction will also help. Many police departments are working toward this, but there are more than 18,000 departments in this country. Many, many more need to implement these policies if we want to be able to treat addiction like it needs to be treated, as a disease and not a moral failing.
Terry Blevins, former sheriff’s deputy, sergeant, and federal security adviser, recently wrote an opinion piece about this conflict, mentioning how he and his former colleagues have seen a "revolving door" with drug offenders. A report from American Friends Service Committee states that almost half of all drug offenders in Arizona return to prison within three years. In efforts to right this wrong, Blevins has been promoting the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program which connects addicts with a case manager instead of a jail cell. They unite the case manager with a police officer, a prosecutor, an attorney, and service providers to ensure that the drug offender is being connected with the aid they need to fight their addictions. LEAD has been successful from Canton, Ohio, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has reduced related recidivism by 55 percent.
And what about the US government? Murthy’s statements are giving hope that addiction will be treated like the health crisis it is, but unless the federal government gets fully on board, the change will be slow and many of those suffering addiction will continue to sit in prison.
Know your rights when it comes to drug and other charges, and make sure you always have an outstanding lawyer on your side. Contact Phoenix Criminal Defense Attorney Burges McCowan today to ensure your best interests are upheld at all times.