“We aren’t saying everyone should be let out of prison; it’s accountability, but as an individual. That’s the key. We are all children of God created in His image, with love. We’ve all fallen short, but punishment isn’t the only way to help drug abusers.” – Pat Nolan, Director of Nolan Center for Justice
Half of the people in federal prisons are serving for a drug offense. The number of people in state prisons for drug offenses today is 10 times greater than in 1980. In 2016, over 25% of inmates in prison for drug offenses had no prior criminal history before then. The majority of federal inmates serving time for drug offenses have no violent history at all.
Mandatory minimum sentences have driven growth in long sentences. Incarceration can cost anywhere from $16,000-50,000 depending on what state someone is incarcerated in. Recidivism rates are high in American prisons, and there is very little evidence that substance abusers are treated properly when they’ve re-entered society. Consider the secondary effect that are produced from these first offense long sentences.
We are should be tackling drug addiction as a public health issue requiring public health solutions, rather than a public safety issue. To those using drugs, they aren’t the problem – for them, drugs are a solution to their problems. Drugs help people deal with fear, anger, shame, isolation, depression, and other real and deep problems. Yet, we still manage to be surprised that spending years locked up in a small cell doesn’t transform people with drug addictions into model citizens. We still manage to think that people with a drug addiction are basically different – defined by their poorly chosen solution, instead of their basic human dignity. We remain addicted to drug enforcement and criminal justice policies that we cannot afford and that don’t deliver on their promise of relief.
Unlike incarceration, drug addiction treatment reduces the drug use and its associated health and social costs. The reduced recidivism rates that result from the use of drug courts benefit public safety, but drug courts can also reduce the burden of incarceration on state budgets because they cost less – between $2,500-4,000 annually per offender. Implementing programs such as the HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) program conducts frequent drug tests backed up by swift and certain sanctions for violations, usually by a few days in jail. The HOPE program recognizes that drug courts shouldn’t be a free handout or free pass. As defendants complete the rigorous program of the drug court, they remain out of prison, and are encouraged to hold a job and support their families. Because of HOPE, drug use has dropped by more than 70% and arrests for new crime fell by more than 50%.