‘Let the punishment fit the crime.’
This is a legal principle with which we are all familiar. In fact, this idea is echoed quite clearly in the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment."
For the most part, the courts and the justice system treat this principle as sacrosanct, but this is not the case when it comes to illegal drugs. While few would dispute that those who are trafficking in these dangerous substances probably deserve to spend time in prison, approximately 80% of all drug-related arrests in this country are actually for simple possession. Reconciling 8th Amendment protections with prison sentences for drug users who have broken no other law would seem to strain the concept of proportional justice to the breaking point, and this is especially true when those who are sent to prison are suffering from addiction. People with this disease need treatment, but American lawmakers in their infinite wisdom have decided that throwing addicts in jail right and left is the best way to prevent people from using illegal drugs.
The War on Common Sense
Among those who advocate for the rights of substance abusers to have access to treatment, there appears to be some confusion on this issue. Many decry the fact that addicts are being sent to prison when they are caught with drugs instead of being sent to treatment, arguing that treatment will do much more to help these people overcome their addiction than being sent to jail. But from the standpoint of the criminal justice system, whether or not addicts would be better off being sent into treatment is actually irrelevant. Drug users who have committed no other crime are being sentenced to prison terms as a deterrent, as a way to send a message to others that if they want to stay out of trouble with the law they should stay away from illegal drugs at all costs. Essentially, the needs of drug addicts are being sacrificed for the greater good, although no judge, prosecutor, or politician supporting tougher sentencing for drug crimes would be likely to admit this in public. This is the strategy that was adopted in the 1980s as a part of the so-called "War on Drugs," and for the past 30 years the American prison system has been using this approach to combat the scourge of illegal drug use.
If illegal drug use had faded into obscurity and overall addiction rates had fallen as a result of the War on Drugs, perhaps the argument could be made that sacrificing the interests of individual drug addicts was a price worth paying for society as a whole. But in truth, the War on Drugs has been such a catastrophic failure that it makes General Custer’s final campaign at the Little Bighorn look like a smashing success in comparison. What we have discovered is that viewing drug use and addiction as if they were a military problem and treating those who are using as if they were soldiers in an opposing army is a wildly inappropriate approach and completely inadequate for dealing with the task at hand.
Addiction may be a societal problem, but more than anything else it is an individual problem that affects real people with unique personal histories. The only fair, effective, and compassionate way to deal with this ongoing epidemic it to give every addict a real chance to get better, and the best way to do this is to provide each of them with an opportunity to receive comprehensive treatment for their disease in a drug rehabilitation center staffed by experienced, highly-trained professional counselors and therapists.
The Drug Court Revolution
Drug courts first appeared on the scene in the 1980s, when a few forward-thinking judges and other legal professionals reasoned that giving people arrested for drug crimes the option of accepting treatment as an alternative to incarceration might be a good way to reduce both addiction rates and recidivism.
Since the era of the drug courts began, a whole host of criminal justice research organizations have sponsored studies examining the question of treatment vs. prison, and what they have discovered bears out the instincts of those who initiated this new approach to an old problem. The numbers prove conclusively that rehabilitation is a much more cost-effective way of lowering levels of drug abuse, addiction, and drug crime than incarceration – addicts who successfully undergo treatment after arrest are able to put their drug problems and criminal history behind them far more frequently than those who are sent directly to prison. Meanwhile, simply putting a lot of people in jail who have been caught using or possessing drugs has not reduced the overall amount of drug use in society by even one iota, thereby directly contradicting the logic of the War on Drugs approach.
There are now more than 2400 drug courts in operation in the United States at the state and federal levels, and this number should continue to expand as more and more political decision makers and advocates for legal reform come to realize that offering addicts treatment in lieu of imprisonment will save money at the same time it is saving lives.
Let the Treatment Fit the Disease
Over the past three decades, the rates of drug abuse and addiction have shown no signs of improving, despite the continuous effort to make the problem go away by arresting and incarcerating as many drug users as our prisons can possibly hold. It is time for politicians, judges, prosecutors, and police departments to finally admit that drug use cannot be controlled by punishment, and that the best way to reduce both drug addiction and the crime associated with this activity is to provide treatment for all who need it. This approach could cost a lot of money, it is true; but studies have now shown that trying to solve the problem of addiction by relying on the prison system to take care of things is already bankrupting us, and the fact that this approach is completely ineffective should make the final decision about which way to go an incredibly easy one for everyone concerned.