Drug Offenders: Criminals or Victims?

Nancy Reagan’s "Just Say No" to drugs campaign is one that still resonates with me. It is the simplest solution to a very complex issue that is based off of initial diversion and avoidance of peer pressure. To a conservative mind it is more than a sufficient tool, but to the more liberal mind it lacks depth, does not address individual variables, and realizes it is not an all-encompassing solution to such a diverse and intricate problem. Mental health issues are often at the root of addiction problems or are a product thereof, which makes just saying “No” obsolete. Just saying “No” to mental health problems probably wouldn’t be a very well receptive to any community.

Richard Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs was a political and policing campaign that still shapes the way we deal with and perceive drug addiction to this day. At the time, substance abuse treatment was still in its infancy and the American people were introduced to the killer of the 60’s and the usher of a new form of methodical incarceration, genocide, and slavery; Heroin. Drug-related crime, deaths, and addiction would soon balloon into an all-time high in American history. To combat this devastating trend drug abuse was sought to be destroyed through strict laws and harsh enforcement. More than ever drug abuse was perceived as a criminal act, in which the judicial system still finds sentiments in today. This war on drugs soon evolved into the war on drug abusers. Mass incarceration soon developed, leaving many children fatherless, motherless, and vice versa.

As of 2014, drug offenses make up 50.1% of federal prison inmates, compared to just 16% in 1970 (1). By the end of 2013 approximately 977,000 Americans were on probation with drug charges listed as their most serious offense (25% of total probation population) (2). But what about crimes committed to get money for drugs? Approximately 16% of people in state prison and 18 percent of people in federal prison reported committing their crimes to obtain money for drugs (3). I find it self-evident that one of the biggest challenges facing this country is drug abuse and the mental health problems that are commonly associated with it.

But how should we, as a nation, go about facing this daunting task? Well, from my research we need to start investing tax dollars into the right sectors. It’s time we come to the conclusion that these individuals, for the most part, are victims and not criminals. Mental health issues that came before the addiction, are a product of the active addiction, or came after usage must be treated; collectively, this is a mental health crisis that must be addressed. We must understand that it not only effects the individual, but all surrounding family members and friends.

Should these individual be punished and thrown into cages? I really don’t think so. I believe that these people are already in their own cells; they need to be freed and not caged. From an unbiased pragmatic standpoint, the question is: does jailing drug abusers work? Is it cost effective? The answer is simple – No. A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community yields over $18 in cost savings related to crime. In comparison, prisons only yield $.37 in public safety benefit per dollar spent (3). This research shows that communities would be best served, from a practical dollars and cents standpoint, to send drug abusers to treatment instead of jail.

My personal opinion has always been that our criminal justice system needs major reform when in regards to non-violent drug offenses. I’ve always thought our tax dollars would be much better suited to give $50,000 a year to a mental health counselor to treat addiction problems rather than the average $43,500 salary of a correctional officer. This theory has proven to be substantial and needs to be investigated further. This would not only give drug abusers (most suffering from mental health issues) the help they need, but will also create thousands of jobs for mental health therapists/psychologists. The criminal justice system has realized the problem at hand and has consistently expanded on the Drug Court programs to deal with the increasing flux of drug offenders, but there are flaws. From personal experience I can say that these programs are more like an intensive probation with a drug theme. In two years I only had 3 one-on one sessions with my therapist.

Another fault is that the drug court program traditionally only deals with first time drug offenders; for repeat offenders they do not have that luxury. Despite these short comings Drug Court studies have shown that 75% of their graduates remain arrest-free at least within a two-year period of time (4). Rigorous meta-analysis has also shown that Drug Court saves the taxpayer anywhere from $3,000-$13,000 while also reducing crime up to 45% more than other sentencing options (4). These studies have proven Drug Court is a fantastic step in the right direction and an asset to the criminal justice system, therefore needs to be expanded and improved dramatically.

It is of my opinion, from a collective standpoint, we, as a nation, need to be extremely progressive when it come to the treatment of drug abusers/offenders. Even the media, as of late, has jumped on the bandwagon that the war on drugs has failed. Just saying “No”, as Nancy Reagan would have it, has not worked and does not take into consideration that just saying “No” to mental health issues is ludicrous. Going to war with drug offenders by methods of mass incarceration has proven costly and lacking of any substantial evidence that it works.

It is of my personal opinion that drug abusers are victims, not criminals. They are not only victims of their disease, but victims of a criminal justice system that has, from many accounts, failed them and their communities. There are many people that I’m sure would disagree with me and view addicts as criminals, which is fine. However, research is beginning to show that whether or not you perceive them as criminals or victims, the way we are treating this problem is not cost effective or efficient.  I can only hope that the drug courts expand drastically and we, as a nation, can begin the healing process together.