A Case for Treating Nonviolent Drug Offenders With Rehabilitation Instead of Prison Time

Our nation has an incarceration problem. As of today, the United States is five percent of the world’s population yet its prisons hold over twenty percent of the world’s prison population. Between 1978 to 2014, the population in prison or jail in the United States rose by 408%. The most troubling of these statistics is that nonviolent drug offenders have been a defining characteristic of the federal justice system and have become an increasingly prominent presence in the state system. Since 1980, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has risen steeply from 40,900 in 1980 to 450,345 in 2016. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as of August 2018, almost 50% of federal inmates currently in prison committed drug offenses (up all the way from 16% in 1970). That means that of those in federal prison in 2018, 78,511 people did not harm another person or his/her property, yet face the slammer. At the state level, the amount of drug offenders incarcerated has increased ninefold since 1980, and only recently hit a plateau then started to decline. Additionally, mandatory minimums for drug offenses means that people are kept in prison for longer. In 1986, drug offenders spent an average of 22 months in federal prison. By 2004, that number nearly tripled to 62 months in prison. While the criminal justice system has been successful at putting some kingpins and other serious offenders behind bars, most of the drug offenders serving time are not high-level actors in the drug trade and are sentenced for possession. Additionally, most drug offenders do not have a  prior criminal record for any violent offense.

The issue with the current approach to incarcerate those who commit drug offenses is threefold. For one, the system has been proven to be a form of institutional racism where black people are more frequently sentenced to prison even though they are not more likely than their white counterparts to engage in illicit drug use. While white people composed 72% of all illegal drug users compared to the 15% share contributed by black people, black people constituted 62.6% of drug offenders in state prison. Second, once people receive a badge as a convict, the American society is not very forgiving of them and as a result, their job opportunities are significantly diminished. A study showed that in 2008, the United States economy lost 1.5 to 1.7 million workers due to ex-offenders “not being employable.” As a result of low job prospects, this nation has an astonishing recidivism rate, with 67.8% of released prisoners rearrested in 2005. (Of those rearrested, drug offenders were 76.9%.) Third, the increase in convictions have not proven to result in decreased drug activity in the states. For instance, Tennessee incarcerated three times more drug offenders than New Jersey, however, the drug use within each of these states is reportedly the same. Without the rehabilitation centers, the drug users often times resort to using drugs again, a result of dealing with the dire consequences of having a criminal record such as lower job prospects and also due to a lack of proper treatment to recover from drug addiction. This begs the question, if the penal system fails miserably at accomplishing the goal of rehabilitating the drug offenders and deterring drug use, why must our nation be so quick to release the constable? Should the United States change its drug policy so that alternative measures can be taken that can better act to deter drug use and improve our communities? This nation should send prisoners to treatment centers instead of prisons, which would allow drug addicts to recover and turn their lives around and would significantly decrease the prison population.

Rehabilitation, rather than prison time, not only does a better job at deterring crime, but is also more cost effective. A study by researchers at RTI International and Temple University shows that by sending people to treatment centers, crime would be reduced and the criminal justice system would save billions of dollars. This is because, for one, initial drug treatment is less expensive than incarceration. For instance, the Justice Policy Institute reported that the yearly cost of incarcerating a drug offender in Maryland is $20,000 whereas the yearly cost of treatment in the same state is $4,000. Second, people who are rehabilitated are less likely to commit crimes or be arrested again. As a result, not only is the overall cost of incarceration decreased, but the costs of law enforcement and court costs is cut as well.  Third, since rehabilitation will improve long-term health of each individual, the cost of healthcare for uninsured patients would be drastically reduced. Lastly, the reallocated money would be a better use of tax money because if more people in the community have enhanced health and wellness and no felony conviction, more people can re-enter the workforce to become productive members of society.

Sending people to rehab instead of to prison has proven to work to decrease prison populations and deter drug use in other nations. In Norway, for instance, the criminal justice system focuses on restorative justice, which means that rehabilitation, and not punishment, is the primary focus. Additionally, in 2016, Norwegian courts had the option to send people who do drugs into rehabilitation centers instead of prison. With rehabilitation as a focus, Norway’s incarceration rate just 75 per 100,000 peoplecompared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the United States. Additionally, Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. This is because people are better able to integrate back into society since the focus is on rehabilitating the offenders and preparing them to work when they reenter society.

The United States is currently at the brink of revising its sentencing guidelines set during the beginning of the War on Drugs in the 1980s. In light of the opioid crisis facing the nation today, lawmakers are focusing less on harsh federal sentences, and more on research into the public health crisis. Since the government is looking at opioid drug users with more compassion and less contempt, there is a perfect opportunity for lawmakers to make offenders of all drugs an offense that calls for treatment instead of prison time. If that were to be applied both today and retroactively, it would be to the betterment of our nation.


Suggested citation: Stephanie McIntyre, A Case for Treating Nonviolent Drug Offenders With Rehabilitation Instead of Prison TimeCornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (Oct. 4, 2018), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/a-case-for-treating-nonviolent-drug-offenders-with-rehabilitation-instead-of-prison-time/.

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