Going from Punishment to Treatment

Fuzzy image of the addict sitting in sunglasses and hoodie.

Drug addiction is a difficult crisis, a harmful habit with a very toxic substance that causes people to act in a way that is completely different from their true nature as individuals. Drug addiction is a tricky beast, a physical and mental crisis but also a criminal habit, as every time a drug addict uses drugs, he or she is breaking the law.

Drugs are truly horrible and they make great people turn sour, but that doesn’t mean that we should punish addicts or treat them like criminals. In fact, we need to help addicts. We need to rehabilitate and treat addicts. We need to assist addicts in overcoming their drug habits and alcohol addictions.

The simple truth is that incarcerating and punishing addicts does not work. Addiction is a crippling and dire crisis in both one’s mind and body, and it’s not something that time spent in a jail cell will fix. We treat addicts like criminals, but an addiction is not a crime. An addiction is a crippling disaster in a person’s life that they need help overcoming.

Why Prison Does not Help Addicts

Right off the bat, we have to realize that a prison is not a drug-free environment. Not by any means. A drug rehab is. But a prison is a melting pot of different types of drugs and contraband. This is the corrupt condition of U.S. prisons that we often do not hear about. Corrupt prison guards smuggle drugs in for prisoners and non-corrupt prison guards then bust those prisoners, adding to the prisoners’ sentence. It just hits the reset button and starts the vicious cycle all over again.

And even when prison inmates get out of jail, recidivism rates are extremely high. The key problem is, prisons do not free drug addicts from their addictions. When addict/inmates get out of prison, they are just as likely to go back to using drugs and alcohol as they were before they went to prison.

A prison cell and overall time spent in jail does not address why addiction is happening to the person in the first place. According to a direct quote from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

“Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.”
Arrested man looking at the camera.

Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg too. Not only does the prison system not actually work as a method of helping to change a person’s social condition, mentality, behavior, and lifestyle, but prisons are also extremely expensive.

According to research done by the Prison Policy Initiative and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States spends about eighty-one billion dollars every year on prisons. And when we add the costs of policing, criminal courts, and the costs paid by families to support their incarcerated loved ones, the grand total is easily double the above number. If some of that money was instead diverted into drug and alcohol addiction treatment, and if a hefty portion of the inmates who were really just addicts who committed non-violent crimes were sent to a drug rehab instead, the entire American economy would improve as a result.

A one dollar investment in addiction treatment results in roughly seven dollars in savings on taxpayers in the form of less incarceration, less money spent on health care, and less money spent cleaning up the swath of collateral damage caused by drug and alcohol addiction. Prisons are more or less just a very expensive way of taking drug users, stuffing them away in a cell for a few years, forgetting about them, and then just having to deal with them again later. Why not fix the problem the first time and get it right?

The Condition of Incarceration in America

The condition of incarceration in the United States is already pretty dire. Stuffing more drug addicts and alcoholics into prison is not going to help the condition improve, not by a long shot. In fact, it is just going to make the prison system worse.

Consider the following statistics, garnered by the Population Reference Bureau:

  • Since the year 2002, the United States has had the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. This means that the U.S. puts more residents in jail per capita than any other nation.
  • While most developed countries incarcerate about one-hundred individuals for every one-hundred-thousand residents in that country, the United States incarcerates seven-hundred individuals for every one-hundred-thousand residents.
  • The United States has more than two million individuals in the prison system, a statistic direct from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Ninety percent of U.S. prisoners are men, and the vast majority of them are men in their twenties and early thirties. About seventy percent of them haven’t even completed high school.
  • More than half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug crimes. The Sentencing Project estimates that there are about 1.1 million Americans in jail for drug-related issues, and about seven-hundred thousand of those individuals are African Americans. Black kids are ten times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white ones, even though white kids are statistically speaking more likely to misuse drugs.
  • There is a large percentage of current prison inmates who committed a non-drug-related crime for the purpose of getting money for drugs. About twenty-five percent of inmates admit that they were either using drugs when they committed their crime, or their crime was committed for the purpose of getting drugs. Add that to the fifty percent of crimes being legitimate drug crimes, and we can see that drugs play a huge role in why our prison system is so completely overloaded.

Just from that brief look at some of the statistics of our prison systems, we can start to see that the United States is already in a poor condition with our prison systems. We need to focus more on directing drug offenders away from incarceration and more towards treatment instead.

Addiction Treatment, not Imprisonment, is the Right Answer

Sober friends.

We can’t treat drug addicts and alcoholics like criminals, because if we do, those individuals will never stop being drug addicts and alcoholics. Prisons don’t work for addicts. Addiction treatment centers do.

When a person becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol, this is something that is occurring because of difficult and harsh conditions in life that the person cannot find a healthy way of coping with. There may even be underlying issues and difficult conditions from long ago that the person might not even be thinking with that could have opened the doors to such a habit.

These are crippling difficulties that addicts need help addressing. They need one-on-one assistance and direction, and they need group support from their peers and their opinion leaders. Drug and alcohol rehab centers possess the tools, the treatment methods, the counseling techniques, the life skills courses, the knowledgeable staff, the peers, and the drug-free environments that addicts need, all in order to overcome addiction. When someone is faced with a drug habit or an alcohol addiction, they and their family members and loved ones should make every effort towards treatment, not towards incarceration.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.