Substance abuse provides a motivation for many crimes, from petty theft to physical assault. Traditionally, law courts focus on the crime, not the underlying cause. As a result, many addicts find themselves caught in a repeating cycle of arrest, imprisonment and release. The cycle costs the legal system millions every year. More importantly, people suffering from addiction repeat the cycle for years without receiving help and effective treatment.
SAMHSA and Drug Courts
Imagine being arrested for the “crime” of liver cancer or receiving a prison sentence for depression. Addiction is a disease, not a crime. Drug courts recognize this important distinction and offer addicts accused of crimes a choice: traditional imprisonment or addiction counseling programs.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Services Association funds 62 drug courts across the U.S. through the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Simply by offering addiction recovery as an alternative to jail, drug courts reduce repetitive arrest rates.
A 2003 study by the Center for Court Innovation shows some impressive numbers. The study tracked case outcomes in New York State’s three drug courts and similar cases in state law courts. Drug courts reported 27 percent lower re-arrest and reconviction rates compared to the traditional court system.
Shifting Expectations and the War on drugs
Given the success of drug courts, it’s hopeful we’ll see the war on drugs move from the street, where the emphasis is on crime, to the addiction treatment center, where the focus changes to health and wellness.
The shift will take time. Traditional attitudes towards drug and alcohol-related crime need to change, but switching from punishment to a treatment-based strategy would hurt drug providers in the long run. For all its sinister and violent underpinnings, the drug trade is a business and, like any business, it thrives or dies based on supply and demand.
The cycle of arrest, imprisonment and release of addicts does nothing to threaten the drug trade. In contrast, treatment-based strategies help people overcome addiction.
Send a heroin addict to jail for theft and drug suppliers know they’ll see her again. Send the same addict to an addiction counseling program and you break the cycle. Less drug profits discourage criminals (real criminals, not addicts) from engaging in drug pushing and production. The result? Fewer dangerous drugs on the street and a decrease in serious drug-related crime.
We’ll never completely eliminate street drugs and the criminals who profit from them. We can, however, choose to break the cycle of abuse instead of punishing people caught in the grip of addiction. The challenge is changing how society views addiction. An addict appearing before the courts should be given the help and treatment he needs. To do anything less is simply wrong.