Virginia Wants Treatment – Not Jail – For Its Addicted Citizens

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During the four years I was in prison, I met hundreds and hundreds of women. Many were first-time, nonviolent offenders – and almost all were battling some type of chemical dependency.

For those with substance abuse problems, incarceration did nothing to address the root cause. In fact, a bulk of those who were released came right back in a few months later – almost like a revolving door.

Virginians Call for Treatment Not Punishment

Prison is designed to penalize – not rehabilitate – so it didn’t take me long to realize that it wasn’t the appropriate place to send people battling addictions. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. One state – Virginia – came to the same conclusion on their own. In fact, most Virginians agree that those who abuse drugs or alcohol should receive treatment, not jail time.

According to a new statewide poll, more than six out of 10 respondents believed heroin users should be offered treatment instead of being arrested and charged with a crime. Seven out of 10 felt the same way about prescription drug abusers.

Citizens of Virginia also voiced support for nonviolent offenders suffering from mental illness, believing that they, too, deserved a treatment-based approach rather than an incarceration-based approach. In fact, 88 percent of poll respondents felt this group should be required to participate in community-based treatment programs, rather than being placed behind bars. This belief was shared by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike.

This Issue Has Bipartisan Support

Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, said the survey “…demonstrates support for the governor’s initiatives with regard to mental health and combating the opioid epidemic.”

He also added, “Virginians view opioid abusers and those experiencing lack of treatment for mental illness as an increasingly difficult issue plaguing communities and that treatment options should be available for these users.”

In addition to asking about substance abuse and mental health issues, the survey also touched on police-community relations, as well as concerns on public safety agencies’ abilities to respond to acts of terrorism in the commonwealth.

The survey polled a representative sample of 1,000 across Virginia and involved telephone interviews taken last December. It was conducted by the Center for Public Policy at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, in partnership with the office of the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

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