Author: Justin Mckibben
With the release of the United States Surgeon General report this month came the historical declaration that substance abuse is a public health disorder. While many have insisted upon this perspective in the past, it is the first time anyone holding the office of U.S. surgeon general has made the statement. In this groundbreaking report, Vivek Murthy described substance abuse stating,
“Not as a moral failing, but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency and compassion. The way we address this crisis is a test for America.”
This revelation is a long-awaited victory for the countless advocates who have been hoping to change the way the world sees substance abuse and addiction.
Along with this statement, there comes a conversation about how to shift the strategies used to address addiction. Along with that comes the possibility for vast change and reform in the realm of criminal justice. How big is the impact of criminal justice on the addiction issue, and how could a change in perspective change everything?
Current View of Criminal Justice
The big thing here is that for years people have pushed for the world to see substance abuse and addiction as a health issue, both physical and mental. Changing the view from stigma and punishment to treatment ultimately means giving people struggling a better shot at recovery.
The failed War on Drugs has definitely put addiction and substance abuse in a place it doesn’t necessarily belong. Murthy’s report provides an update on drug and alcohol users in the country. According to its figures, in the last year alone:
- About 48 million Americans used or abused illegal or prescription drugs
- 28 million drove under the influence
- 21 million Americans currently suffer from addiction (substance-use disorder)
- Out of an estimated 2 million inmates in the nation, 65% “meet the criteria for substance-abuse addiction” according to a new study
- According to thePrison Policy Initiative, over 300,000 inmates currently in state and federal prisons are for convictions related to drugs.
These statistics place a severe strain on the criminal justice system far beyond federal prisons.
- Local and county jails have held thousands of these same individuals
- Tens of thousands lost driving privileges due to drunk driving
- Millions served time and were put on probation
- Millions became repeat offenders and cycled back through the system
The long and short of it is that in fact, the current system is not anything close to fixing the problem. And at $442 billion dollars spent annually on health-care and criminal justice for substance-use disorder, that is a VERY expensive failure to repeat over and over.
Reforming Criminal Justice
There are many variables that come into play when you discuss reforming criminal justice to be more effective for helping addicts. Some of these include:
- Ending the tactic of using fear of prison to keep people “in line”
- Reforming treatment programs through criminal justice system that rely on harsh penalties
- Ending unnecessarily punitive federal sentencing guidelines
A hard truth is the criminal-justice system is often the first to be in contact with struggling addicts. Thus many people only receive treatment once they are already involved in the criminal justice system, which often locks them into a cycle of failed attempts to clean up and repeated arrests.
Many would say it would be ideal to not have addicts and those battling substance abuse go through the criminal justice system at all; specifically for non-violent, drug-related offenses. They would rather individuals be directly diverted to a system that relies on medical and therapeutic rehabilitation.
The fact remains; even if state and federal governments begin addressing addiction as a health crisis, any reforms to the existing criminal-justice system will come with their own burdens. This kind of power-shift would have instantaneous economic effects due largely to institutional competition. The massive industrial prison system that has thrived for decades would of course fight to keep its funding if the government tried to divert those funds to healthcare programs.
The surgeon general’s report is a refreshing perspective and a much needed statement. But there is still money to move and the need for playing politics. Despite the fact that most believe mental health and public health institutions are better suited to treat addiction than prisons, some say they do not have the seniority or the political juice to make a claim on the resources to do so.
In the end, setting up an approach on the state or national level that would send addicts to treatment instead of jails and prisons would be an enormous task that we cannot logically expect to happen all too soon. Yet, there is hope. Many states now have more compassionate and treatment-based programs with law enforcement. Crisis-intervention training and other methods have reduced arrests and housing costs in many areas. It does make a difference.
The real difference to reforming the criminal justice system will come when more officials recognize that substance abuse and addiction are health issues and not moral ones, especially officials at the federal level.
Never forget that every day we all have the chance to influence change. Maybe we can’t change the criminal justice system over night, but we can make decisions that make a difference. Understanding addiction and fighting back is a victory itself. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call our toll-free number now to speak with an specialist. We want to help.
CALL NOW 1-800-951-6135
(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)
Author: Justin Mckibben
I remember a while back when I first started writing for the Palm Partners blog there was a day the other writer Cheryl, who has since moved on to pursue a passion in social work and continued education, had mentioned to be there was a page on Facebook called “Humans of New York” (HONY) she was following that I should check out.
At the time, I didn’t think much of the suggestion until I saw some of the photos and was pleasantly surprised by how inspiring or compelling it could be to just look at some beautiful portraits and captions about the people in the images, but Humans of New York became something I followed pretty regularly- making me just one of over 16 million Facebook followers.
These galleries are like a beautiful mix of micro-blog articles and documentary photography which have as a collective redefined and uplifted the power of compelling portraits coupled with personal stories. The photography and the stories attached have this ability to let us relate to the point they make us laugh, cry, or motivate us into action.
But one of the biggest influences of Humans of New York is that these images make us experience the humanity of the people of New York and beyond, which gives them even more power to teach us how to understand and empathize with people totally different from us… including drug addicts.
With Great Power…
We’ve heard it before, right; with great power comes great responsibility… Well with the power of compassion Humans of New York has to reach such a broad audience across the sea of social media, it seems they should have some awareness to some responsibility to inform and expose the realities of humanity to those who don’t know the true depth of different cultures and circumstances, in order to help make the world a better place by bringing people closer together.
Apparently Humans of New York is well aware of this responsibility, because in the past week the page has featured a number of posts to its gallery that have been especially expressive, intense and heart wrenching as they cross-reference the War on Drugs through sharing stories of people who are incarcerated in five different federal prisons across the Northeast, including prisons in:
Given the overwhelming statistics of inmates who are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses, there is an devastating number of both men and women serving unconscionable sentences when compared to the nature of the charges brought against them, and many have been profiled in the series in great detail, revealing that many actually struggled with addiction and poverty, leading them to their actions that brought them to prison.
One picture and story from female prisoner from the Federal Correctional Complex is Hazelton, West Virginia actually got me a little choked up. The quote used for the caption stated:
“This is my fifth time in prison. Every crime I’ve committed has come from my addiction. Best case scenario is I get out of here, rebuild my life, and join the one percent of people who have beaten a meth addiction. Worst case scenario is I become no more than what I am today. And honestly, if I mess up again, I hope it kills me. Because I don’t want to keep hurting people.”
This was posted about 2 weeks ago and since it has received:
- Over 150,000 likes
- 13,600 comments
- 13,600 shares
Then there was another story from a male inmate in the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland. This man talked about being raised by his mother as one of 4 children in a one bedroom apartment, and learning to sell drugs at 12 years old in order to help raise himself- which eventually evolved into a lifestyle that landed him in prison. The inmate stated:
“There’s no such thing as Robin Hood. Nobody wants to hear that you’re dealing drugs to feed your family. Prosecutor doesn’t want to hear that. Society doesn’t want to hear that. The system doesn’t want to hear that. There’s a verse in the Book of Ezekiel, I forget which one, but it talks about this. It says something like: ‘If you do all good, and one bad, the good will not be mentioned.’”
Of course the truth is these people made choices that placed them in a position to be arrested, but the idea behind a lot of this focus the Humans of New York put on this is to expose so very troubling truths about the War on Drugs including:
- Only 7% of prisoners in federal prison are serving for violent crimes
- 47% of federal prisoners are serving for non-violent drug offenses
- The U.S. has spent over $1 Trillion in the past 4 decades on the War on Drugs
- During this time prison populations have risen more than 400%
- Probably most devastating…. Drug addiction rates have stayed the same, or even in the past few years overdose death rates have skyrocketed!
In these stories we see mothers and fathers who have lost their children, and young adults who have become old inmates by living out most of their natural lives behind bars for being an addict or for getting mixed up in the drug trade. So many lives become completely lost past those prison yards, and it only emphasizes how important it is that we change the drug policy and prison system in America. Because not nearly enough people who need help escaping this cycle end up in treatment like they should… instead they pass life away in a prison cell.
Far too many addicts are incarcerated without the opportunity to get the help they need that could actually change their lives, but the resources are always here for those who still have the choice to try and make a change for life. Palm Partners is ready to help you. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135