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Released From Prison… and Still Addicted to Substances

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% of this segment meet medical criteria for substance addiction, but they are provided with few treatment options while behind bars. As a result, these men and women are released back into society without the tools needed to avoid returning to drugs and alcohol. Oftentimes, relapse occurs, violations result—and the cycle begins all over again.

Criminalizing addiction has resulted in a staggering growth in incarceration rates. According to The Sentencing Project, federal prisoners convicted on drug charges comprise half of the prison population, while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased 13-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 prisons over-crowded 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 also from a financial one.

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 2 dozen other countries have already taken steps away from traditional punitive-oriented drug policies. One such country 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 and alcohol addiction as a health issue rather than a crime. By decriminalizing possession and investing in addiction treatment and aftercare services, we can reduce the harms of drug misuse while improving public safety and health.

How to Find Help for Drug or Alcohol Misuse

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance misuse, help is available and recovery is possible. Professional treatment can start anyone battling addiction on the path to a happier and healthier life. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading treatment provider and has trusted rehab programs across the country. For helpful advice, information, or admissions, please contact a caring AAC representative free at . You can also check your health insurance coverage using the form below.

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