In Part One of this series, Infinite Recovery started to discuss our country’s untreated drug problem, namely, the way our criminal justice system approaches addiction and recovery. We described our problem as a sickness that has infected all of us. In this post, we go further into the issue and explore how this issue is not only serious, but how our current approaches are making the country sicker via increased crime, wasteful government spending and the increasing human costs of addiction.

The impacts of America’s drug problem are unacceptable. We as a country can do better. The cost of incarcerating people with substance abuse issues in the United States is staggering, burdening an already strained budget. In 2008, 29 percent of all state prison admissions (194,000 people) were drug offenses. It is estimated that $36.4 billion is spent per year on the criminal justice system from costs attributed to drug use. This figure comes nowhere near the total cost to society that drug and alcohol abuse create.

In 2007, it was estimated that the cost to society of drug abuse was $193 billion in lost productivity, health care, and criminal justice costs. A substantial portion of the total costs—$113 billion—is associated with drug related crime, including criminal justice system costs and costs borne by victims of crime.

Failure to treat addiction in our legal system not only completely fails to make any real statistical impact on people with substance issues, but it makes our communities less safe by increasing crime in our neighborhoods—thus exacerbating America’s sickness.

Of those presently incarcerated, nearly 80 percent of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol. The drug or alcohol abuse is typically the reason the crime itself was committed, because drugs and alcohol inhibit judgement, leading people to people commit actions they retroactively regret. In other cases, the the craving to satisfy an individual’s addiction dictates other actions that lead to crime.

Not only does our current approach to addiction harm individuals, it also causes our communities as whole to suffer—in fact 60 to 80 percent of drug abusers commit a new crime (typically a drug-driven crime) after release from prison. While our taxpayer dollars are continually thrown toward incarceration, we’re beginning to understand this is not the best response… and the costs are mounting, both economically and to people.

Impacts of America’s Sickness on Our Communities

Decades ago, a retired judge named Dennis Challeen shared strong words about sending individuals with substance abuse issues to prison. He wrote:

We want them to have self-worth: So we destroy their self-worth

We want them to be responsible: So we take away all responsibility

We want them to be positive and constructive: So we degrade them and make them useless

We want them to be trustworthy: So we put them where there is no trust

We want them to be non-violent: So we put them where violence is all around them

We want them to be kind and loving people: So we subject them to hatred and cruelty

We want them to quit being the tough guy: So we put them where the tough guy is respected

We want them to quit hanging around losers: So we put all the losers in the state under one roof We want them to quit exploiting us: So we put them where they exploit each other

We want them to take control of their lives, own problems and quit being a parasite on society: So we make them totally dependent on us.

Every years, millions come before our courts and are incarcerated, exacerbating the issue, providing no lasting resolution to the underlying addiction. When we put someone who needs treatment behind bars, we miss an opportunity to treat the main reason they are incarcerated, and the costs of doing so are huge. For every person we fail, there are others we also fail—such as their spouses and children—who then endure the pain and difficulty of that person’s absence and lack of proper support.

If a mother or father are absent from home, they can provide no income for their families that often depend on their contributions, not to mention if they are incarcerated they very likely lose their jobs. Additionally, when a mother or father are away from the home, their inability to perform parental duties and be a general presence in the home can have severe impacts on the lives of their dependent children.

We are doing no service to the youth of our country if their parents time away from home is not treating the parents addiction issues. A parent’s detachment from the home can also create significant costs to the state aside from the direct costs of incarcerating them. When a parent is incarcerated for a drug related issue, their children, in many cases, have nowhere to go and often end up on public assistance—incurring larger direct costs to the state as well as the indirect costs of forcing children grow up with significant hardship during times when parental support and family are critical to their development.

For the health our nation’s economy in the short and long term, it’s critical that we develop an alternative system to our current approach to drug crime.


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