South Carolina Prosecutor Sends Addicts to Treatment, Not Jail

Photo by Chris Ryan/

Now a half-century in the making, the War on Drugs has always led with the notion that the only effective solution to any drug-related crime was punishment through incarceration. But as the failures of the War on Drugs have become more apparent, U.S counties, cities, and states are beginning to opt for programs that direct nonviolent drug offenders towards treatment, not jail time.

Case in point, a South Carolina prosecutor recently made national news for being the first in his state to use a federal grant to expand a program that would allow nonviolent criminal offenders who are addicted to drugs to avoid prison and seek treatment instead.

Though not without its legitimate critiques, a model that directs drug users to treatment over incarceration will certainly be of greater benefit to drug addicts and taxpayers alike, not to mention the nation’s public health and societal wellbeing as a whole.

The Story Out of South Carolina

South Carolina prosecutor Duffie Stone is using a federal grant to expand a program that lets nonviolent criminals who are addicted to drugs avoid prison and enter drug addiction treatment instead. The addicts must plead guilty, but they are not required to serve a prison sentence if they complete an addiction treatment program.

The prosecutor indicated that about half of the cases within his five-county circuit are drug-related, indicating that a treatment model over an incarceration model would likely help reduce crime in the long term. Quoting Stone, “Prosecutors deal with two types of offenders—those who struggle with antisocial behavior and those who embrace it. The latter belong in prison, but there are better means of helping nonviolent offenders.” This approach is much less expensive than incarcerating every nonviolent drug offender, and it gives addicts a chance to address their drug crisis effectively.

What Does a Model for Helping Addicts Into Treatment, Not Jail, Look Like?

Woman gets help after arrest

Though it made headlines, the South Carolina story is not the first of its kind. Some districts across the U.S. have been focusing upon directing drug offenders to treatment over incarceration for years. For example, the LEAD program in King County, Washington State liaisons local law enforcement departments with county drug treatment centers to get drug users off the streets and into rehab facilities. Quoting that program’s literature, “LEAD enables law enforcement officers to redirect individuals engaged in law violations arising primarily from behavioral health conditions such as substance use or mental health issues to community-based services instead of using legal sanctions like arrest and jail.”

“People in LEAD were 60% less likely than people in the control group to be arrested within the first six months of the evaluation. Participants were significantly more likely to obtain housing, employment, and legitimate income...”

Independent evaluations of the LEAD program have found it to be effective. Since its implementation in 2011, the program has reduced participants’ involvement in the criminal justice system. It is less costly than incarceration, and it is well accepted and regarded by participants. And the program works. Quoting the peer-reviewed evaluations of the program, “People in LEAD were 60% less likely than people in the control group to be arrested within the first six months of the evaluation. Participants were significantly more likely to obtain housing, employment, and legitimate income in any given month after their LEAD referral (i.e., during the 18-month follow-up) compared to the month before their referral (i.e., baseline).”

LEAD is not the only model for helping addicts into treatment instead of jail, but it does seem to be a very effective one. It accomplishes the main goals of reducing crime, improving public safety, and helping addicts get off drugs and have a better life. Those results may be why the program has been replicated in over 35 jurisdictions across the United States, ranging from Maine to Hawaii.

Drug Abuse Treatment Over Prison Terms Would Save Taxpayers Money

Not only is it more beneficial for people who struggle with drug addiction to go to drug treatment programs instead of jail cells, but it’s also far more affordable for U.S. taxpayers. A study by RTI International and Temple University found that diverting substance-abusing offenders to treatment programs would reduce crime rates and save billions of dollars in crime prevention, would spend less money on housing inmates, as well as spending less money towards collateral damage caused by drug abuse (public health costs, accidents, damages, burglaries, etc.).

The researchers considered many factors, including the estimated benefits of treatment over individuals’ lifetimes and the calculated costs of crime and its criminal justice response (policing, trial and sentencing, incarceration, etc.). They found that the individuals who struggled with addiction benefited immensely from a treatment-over-incarceration model. They were less of a burden on the taxpayer-funded public health system, and they tended to be employed, contributing members of society. Meanwhile, costs were also saved in fewer and fewer criminal justice expenditures.

Money and handcuffs

Operating on an inverse scale, as offenders were directed to treatment over jail, costs and crime went down while health and employment outcomes went up.

Dr. Gary Zarkin, the vice president of the Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice Research Division at RTI and the study’s lead author, commented on the findings. “Given the obvious burden on the criminal justice system and society caused by substance abuse within this population, diverting offenders to effective and targeted substance abuse treatment leads to less drug use, fewer crimes committed, and costs savings.”

Other resources demonstrate a profound economic advantage to treating addicts over incarcerating them. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the estimated cost to society of drug abuse stands at about $193 billion, $113 billion of which is associated with drug-related crime and the criminal justice system’s response to it. Conversely, NIDA estimates that the cost of treating all addicts in America would be about $14.6 billion, a fraction of the cost of addressing the problem through incarceration.

Not Just an Economic Issue; Treating Addicts Improves Public Health and Safety

As touched on in the previous section, not only does treating addicts over incarcerating them save taxpayers money, it also improves public health and safety. Given the high recidivism rates of addicts put through the criminal justice system, incarcerating addicts rarely does more than delay that addict’s next opportunity to use drugs.

However, when addicts are put through drug treatment programs, they are helped off of drugs and put on a path towards a sober, drug-free life. This promotes good public health, as well as reduces overdose deaths, car accidents, falls, the transmission of illnesses, and generally improves the quality of life for recovering addicts and their families.

Unanswered Questions; Matters that Must be Resolved When Shifting from Incarceration to Treatment

If one’s goal is to help a drug addict get better, it is safe to say that addiction treatment is a far more effective solution over-incarceration. However, the issue is not completely black and white. There are legitimate critiques to a treatment-over-incarceration model, mainly in the contingencies that still must be accounted for as the U.S. gradually shifts away from a criminal justice system that punishes addicts through jail time towards a criminal justice system that directs those individuals towards treatment instead.

Such questions include those such as:

  • Is the treatment being offered adequate?
  • Does it meet the needs of the individuals seeking treatment?
  • If a relapse should occur, how is that relapse handled?
  • Will the recovering addict be penalized for relapse?
  • Can the addict choose the type of treatment they receive?
  • Will they be allowed to attend a residential program?

Since criminal records can follow an addict for life; does a treatment over incarceration model offer a way to expunge the crime after treatment?

None of these questions are unanswerable, and none of them negate the clearly beneficial nature of a treatment-over-incarceration model. However, as more states and local criminal justice systems begin to move towards the treatment of drug offenders rather than jail time, these questions and uncertainties will have to be worked out.

Helping an Addicted Loved One Get Treatment

Mother talks to her son

While it is true that the nation is shifting gradually towards a treatment-based approach for drug offenders, the criminal justice system, the prison population, and the courts are still completely overwhelmed by cases of drug addicts who’ve been arrested, prosecuted, and jailed for possessing drugs. On a personal, familial level, this should act as an incentive to seek treatment as soon as possible.

If you have a family member or loved one who is addicted to drugs and alcohol, do everything you can to get them into an addiction treatment center before they become entangled within the criminal justice system. Expensive and restrictive with effects and ramifications that can harm an addict and follow him for life, it is immensely important to intervene and get your loved one into treatment before they get sent into that system.

Not only is drug addiction severely dangerous and life-threatening, but addicts experience harm in many other ways, incarceration included. Please don’t wait until it is too late. Get your loved one help today.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, IAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC



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.