Addict Offenders: A Better Way
Well I am currently unemployed so I may in addition write. I am reading a great book called “Save my Son: A Mother and Sheriff Unite to Reclaim the Lives of Addicted Offenders.” The gist of it is the ridiculous, ass backward way we deal with addicts in this country.
The book has many insightful views and none too few statistics. Basically something like 80% of the people currently incarcerated have issues with drug and alcohol. 59% of them are non violent offenders.
Now think about that. The majority of your hard earned tax dollars that go to prisons are going to locking up non violent offenders from drug crimes. Your money is going to locking up a guy with a possession charge. Not dispensing, possession. In other words being punished for being an addict.
If addiction is a disease (and you’d be hard pressed to find some one with more then a minimal education these days who disagrees with that) then we are imprisoning people for having a disease. Why not lock up all those horrible cancer patients, or diabetics, or kids with leukemia. Why take the chance? It’s ridiculous and already offensive to think of doing anything other then getting these people treatment. So what’s the deal with addicts.
Where did all this start. Hard to say. The book sites the changing attitudes over time where the criminal justice system has been moving backwards from rehabilitation to good ole fact warehousing and punishment. The same people who advocate the punishment system are the same ones who cry about over crowding. I think if you want to go back to recent history you need to look at one name…Nancy Reagan.
That’s right the beloved first lady and her Just Say No campaign. Now I am not going to question the motives behind Ms. Reagan’s efforts. I am sure her motives were pure and I truly believe that she had peoples best interest at heart. And what’s wrong with just saying no? Nothings wrong with it. Except talk to a room complete of addicts (and I have), and they will tell you that amongst those of them who were around for that era the commercials had little or no effect. The D.A.R.E. program, while a good one, has been a failure in working with real addicts. The program worked with kids who weren’t at risk in general to begin with. In other words we paid to preach to the choir.
The idea of just say no is nevertheless around. Most people without the disease of addiction, despite being shown overwhelming evidence to the contrary, nevertheless believe that most addicts can and should just stop. I could write pages of not only my experience, but the experiences of others that would show why that idea is mostly nonsense. Science has shown that an addicts brain works differently, and that all too often the choice to use is taken away as the brains messages override shared sense.
So, what to do. America is a punishing society. 1 in 150 people in this country are incarcerated. More then any other industrialized country. All signs at the border should read “Welcome to America, don’t fuck up.” And addicts are criminals. Possession of a controlled substance is against the law and so we think that addicts should be punished right along with all the other criminal scum.
And why shouldn’t they be punished? One reason, it doesn’t work. In study after study incarceration has shown little or minimal success in deterring addicts from returning to the exact same behaviors that got them there in the first place. The disease doesn’t care what the consequences are. Most addicts simply learn to be better criminals while in prison and better at feeding their addiction when they get out.
So what works? Treatment, pure and simple. Along with an adaptation of harm reduction policies. Let’s take treatment 1st. In terms of cost, treatment saves the tax payers millions. Money that can be better spent on other projects like education, etc… Secondly is the fact that recidivism rates for people in treatment are much better then incarceration. So what if people relapse? Well, what do you do if someone’s cancer comes back? You treat it again. You don’t tell them “Sorry, you had your chance.” If would be barbaric to treat a cancer patient that way. We do it to addicts all the time. If, God forbid, they relapse (and we all do. Several times in fact before we get it) then it’s off to jail, and a repetition of the cycle.
Second is the idea of harm reduction. This is where people get really divided. The idea that some people just can’t be helped, or at the minimum not in the immediate future, and however we do something for them. Let me give you an example. Here in Portland and other cities we have what’s called “Wet Housing.” Wet housing allows people with addictions a place where they can live, and not suffer penalties for their use of drugs or alcohol. Now some people scream bloody murder over this. However, that same person left on the street will cost taxpayers a lot more money in terms of health care, incarceration cost’s, etc… The wet housing works and saves the public a boat load of money.
So with all the obvious advantages of treatment and harm reduction why do we nevertheless continue to send non violent addict offenders to prison. It doesn’t work. In fact I had the privilege to work with a professor who was friends with the head of the state prison systems in Arizona. He said that when asked publicly what they thought the solution was to crime, wardens will all say more bars, more prisons, more guards, etc… When those same wardens are asked anonymously what they think, their answers are more prevention, rehabilitation, and education. Why the difference in answers? They don’t want to be seen as “soft on crime.” They know though that the current system is broken and hasn’t worked for a long time. However, in our punishment happy society they’d be out of a job for already bold to suggest another way.
Now please understand that I am not recommending legalizing drugs (maybe marijuana, but that’s a different article thoroughly). Nor am I saying that people don’t deserve to be held accountable for their actions. If you commit a violent crime in the midst of your active addiction that is not an excuse and you need to be punished appropriately. If you are dealing and are caught, well you probably need to do some time. If you are dealing to kids, I am all about having a hand cut off. However, most addicts are non violent offenders and prison doesn’t work, never has, and never will. As a society we need to suck it up and realize the current way doesn’t work. Albert Einstein was quoted (and it is the standard definition of insanity amongst recovering people) as saying, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This country has gone insane and it’s time to do something different.