An Argument Against Incarcerating Drug Addicts

I was originally assigned to write an argumentative essay in my composition class last semester, and I thought here would be a great place to share what I found. Drug abuse in the United States is a huge problem. If we have any intent to change this epidemic, we need to stop incarcerating drug addicts with no treatment or rehabilitation to help fix their problems.

Did you know that 60% of adults in federal prisons are serving their time for drug-related crimes? Did you know that on average, substance abuse costs our nation over 484 billion dollars every year? Did you know that there are more people with some sort of substance abuse problem than there are people with cancer? To be exact, there are 1.5 times more substance abusers than people with all cancers combined.

To make an educated decision on this matter, you must first understand just how big of a problem drug use is in the United States. For starters, most drug users try drugs for the first time as teenagers.

In 2013, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that there were about 2.8 million new illicit drug abusers, and 54.1% of these abusers were under the age of eighteen.

With this information, I’ve come up with a key question: Is incarcerating someone this young going to increase the chances of them doing something worse once released? I’ll leave that for you to think about yourself. Aside from that, 460,000 deaths were associated with the use of illicit drugs in 2000. According to a 2013 survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 24.6 million Americans reported that they had used an illicit drug in the past month. That is nearly 9.4% of America’s population! 80% of crimes committed that led to incarceration in the US involved drugs or alcohol, and 60% of Americans arrested for any crime tested positive for illicit drugs at the time of arrest. Still not convinced?

More people use prescription opioids in the United States than use tobacco.

Not only is drug abuse a national health crisis, it also has a tremendous effect on economic productivity and the way we spend our money. In healthcare costs, costs to the justice system, and lost economic productivity, substance abuse disorders cost Americans 484 billion dollars every year. That’s far more than the annual cost to treat diabetes! The problem with drug abuse goes even further. Substance abuse also contributes to America’s top social problems, such as violence, child abuse, homelessness, and crime. Nearly half of the people arrested for homicide, theft, or assault were under the influence of illegal drugs. Two-thirds of those in drug abuse rehab centers reported that they were sexually abused as adolescents, and 31% of homeless people in America are addicted to drugs or alcohol. It cannot be argued that there is not a problem with illicit drug use in our country.

We often times may think that locking up drug offenders is the best option, but what really happens to drug addicts once they get out of prison?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world.

In 2009, the United States’ prison population exceeded 2.3 million people. That’s more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners. In fact, more than half of all Americans that are serving time in prison are there for nonviolent crimes, such as drug-related offenses. On top of that, more than five million people are on some sort of supervision such as parole or probation. This correlates to one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, jail, or some sort of supervised release.

40% of felony probationers are rearrested for a new felony within three years of their release to supervision.

The statistics prove that incarceration does not help drug addicts or prevent them from committing crimes after release. We are foolish to think that locking these people up is a solution to the drug crisis that is happening in our country.  Nearly 95% of addicts that get incarcerated will return to drug abuse after their release from prison, and anywhere from 60-80% of these addicts commit new crimes.

There is no doubt that incarceration is ineffective in preventing drug addicts from returning to the habits that got them incarcerated in the first place. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 77% of drug offenders get arrested for a new offense within five years of their release from prison.

Substance abuse disorders have a significant effect on the brain. They affect a person’s ability to make good decisions, responses to stressful situations, and the reward circuits within the brain. Nonetheless, addiction should be treated with the same compassion and urgency as any other disease. Imprisonment does not address the problem that underlies criminal behavior.

In our country’s prisons, 65% of inmates fit the diagnosis of addiction, yet only 11% of these individuals actually receive any sort of rehabilitation or treatment.

Not only are incarcerated addicts not being treated, those that are, aren’t getting adequate rehabilitation. A majority of those that are in charge of these programs don’t care about the program that they are in charge of. If we are serious about rehabilitating drug-addicted criminals (that also want to make the change), we have to offer them a good support network. After completing the poor drug recovery program that is offered in America’s prisons, they are then released back into general population where they can then be exposed to drugs that are smuggled into the prison. Ultimately, any progress that they may have gained from the program is lost.

So what is the solution? I will be the first to agree with the argument that drug addicts that commit crimes deserve to be punished for those crimes. That being said, we can do better to rehabilitate those offenders so that upon their release from incarceration, they can be productive members of society that are much less likely to return to crime or drugs. In the long run, drug rehabilitation of criminals would save Americans thousands of dollars.  In 2006, the annual cost to incarcerate someone was anywhere from $24,000-$40,000. Multiply that by the 2.3 million inmates in America’s prisons, and the annual overall cost is STAGGERING. Since we’re talking money, let me make my argument even stronger.

Out of every tax dollar spent by the government on drug abuse, only 1.9 cents are spent on addiction prevention and treatment.

If we put in the time, money, and effort into proper, satisfactory treatment, the number of repeat offenders would go down; therefore, saving the government money. Initial drug treatment is much cheaper than incarceration and fewer arrests leads to lower court costs, the list of benefits goes on and on. If just 40% of addicted prisoners were given treatment instead of jail, the savings could be nearly 12.9 billion dollars. We need to give addicts the option to receive a thorough treatment. If not in place of a prison sentence, then along with their prison sentence.

There are also prevention methods we can use on adolescents that can help prevent even the experimentation with drugs, in hopes that future incarceration is not likely. These methods include teaching kids healthy ways to deal with everyday stress instead of resulting to substances to cope. Stress is one of the biggest reasons anyone turns to drug use in the first place. We can also teach today’s youth effective ways of refusing illicit drugs when offered them.

In conclusion, I want to personally address an opposing argument that often comes up in the discussion of whether or not addicted offenders deserve proper rehabilitation after committing a non-violent crime. Many people are likely to jump the gun and say things like, “Drug addicts are breaking the law and deserve to be punished” or “People that do drugs are going to commit crimes.” Whereas sometimes those statements prove to be true, there is a deeper issue that needs to be confronted. How many families in the US are directly affected by substance abuse? I haven’t done the research to answer this powerful question, but I want to answer it with an eye-opening personal experience that tells why I am so passionate about the topic in which I am writing. In 2002, I was taken from my mother by Child Protective Services because of her addiction to illicit drugs and alcohol. My mother has struggled with her disease my entire life, and to this day I still do not have much of a relationship with the woman that gave birth to me. She has been in and out of federal prisons ever since. The course of my life since the day we were separated has changed substantially, as you can probably imagine. Reflecting on the result that her addiction has had on me, I have just one grudge. Had she been given proper rehabilitation upon her first stint with the law and the use of illicit drugs, I could have been reunited with the woman I so dearly want to know. Because of the lack of treatment and care for her disease, my family was left torn and without a woman that truly is a good person when not under the influence of hard drugs.

We are wrong to assume that drug addicts are bad people.

They are mothers, fathers, aunts, brothers, daughters, and friends.

They deserve love, compassion, and for someone to aid in and believe in their recovery.

America has got it backwards on how we deal with substance abuse, and we can do better.

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Information and statistics found in this article can be found at: