There are over 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, making the U.S. the most heavily incarcerated country in the world. More than 65 percent of this segment meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction, but yet are provided with few treatment options while behind bars. As a result, these men and women are released back into society without the tools to avoid returning to drugs and alcohol. Often times, relapse occurs, violations result – and the cycle begins all over again.
Criminalizing addiction has resulted in staggering growth in incarceration rates. According to The Sentencing Project, federal prisoners convicted on a drug charge comprise half of the prison population, while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980.
The War on Drugs
Why the increase, you ask? Blame it on the “War on Drugs” – an initiative created by the Nixon Administration intended to discourage the production, distribution and consumption of illegal drugs. Nixon considered drug abuse “public enemy number one” and sent the message to Congress that all action on this issue would be directed toward eradication and incarceration. As a result, the War on Drugs cost taxpayers more than $51 billion annually, accounted for 1.5 million arrests in 2014, alone, and has over-crowded prisons with non-violent offenders year after year.
One solution to reducing the number of drug offenders swept into the system is to enact various forms of decriminalization policies for drug use and possession. This not only makes sense from a human standpoint, but a financial one, as well.
According to a 2010 study published by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron, the annual savings on enforcement and incarceration costs from the legalization of drugs would amount to roughly $48.7 billion per year, with $33.1 billion being saved among the states and $15.6 billion accrued to the federal government.
New Battle Lines
Though the U.S. is still dragging its feet on this issue, roughly two dozen other countries have already taken steps away from traditional punitive-oriented drug policies. One such is Portugal, who in 2001, decided to decriminalize all drug offenses – recommending low-level offenders to either treatment or fines, rather than lengthy prison sentences. Now, nearly 15 years after implementation, Portugal is seemingly faring better than it did before. In fact, it was reported that Portugal saw a decrease in imprisonment on drug-related charges, alongside a surge in visits to health clinics that deal with addiction and disease, according to a study published in 2010 by the British Journal of Criminology.
The bottom line is, prisons are making America’s drug problem worse. It’s time to change course and start treating drug addiction as a health issue rather than as a crime. By decriminalizing possession and investing in treatment and aftercare services, we can reduce the harms of drug abuse while improving public safety and health.
Additional Reading: 7 Shocking Ways Drugs are Smuggled into Prisons
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