Why Rehab Is Better for Heroin Addicts Than Jail

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 | By JP Emerald Coast

There is a disconnection in how heroin addicts are treated in society. The treatment community, the public, lawmakers and the people we rely on to enforce laws tend to view heroin addicts differently, and this ongoing separation makes it difficult for addicts to receive the treatment they need. Our society tends to be tough on crime, but measures to punish and rehabilitate addicts have not achieved their end goals. Let’s take a closer look at the issue to determine why rehab is better for heroin addicts than jail.

The Problem

A number of experts have concluded that drug abuse and addiction are a disease. The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes it as a “chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her.”

We know that the initial decision to use heroin may have been voluntary, but changes in an addicted person’s brain take place over time, which makes it extremely difficult for them to stop using on their own.

There’s a common misconception that if addicts were somehow stronger or had more willpower, then they would be able to stop using. This mistaken belief doesn’t take into account the stronghold that addiction can have on a suffering individual. In 2013, 9.4 percent of the US population (24.6 million people) used an illicit drug within the past month, according to statistics released by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The survey results indicated that 517,000 people had a dependence or abuse issue with heroin.

While addicted individuals suffer immensely, possession of heroin is a crime under federal and state laws. The exact definition of the crime depends on the state. For example, in Virginia, a person does not have to be found with the heroin directly on their person to be considered “in possession of” the drug. If police discover heroin in a location where a person has exclusive access to it — such as the backseat of a car they own — it could be considered possession. If a large enough quantity of the drug is found on a person, the prosecutor may conclude that they were intending to distribute or traffic the drug, and the penalties will be much more severe.

The Issue of Sending Addicts to Jail

No one would reasonably argue that people guilty of heroin trafficking do not deserve to spend time in prison. Existing laws have strict punishments for those found guilty of crimes that include distributing drugs. Most offenders sent to jail are not found guilty of the more serious crime of trafficking. Eighty percent of convictions related to drug-related crimes are sentenced for possession.

In many instances, mandatory sentences are used, which means the judge can’t consider the facts of the case when determining how to sentence a person accused of a crime in court. A guilty verdict means the judge is required to sentence an offender to a minimum stay in jail or prison — depending on the state. In some instances, a fine must be levied as well.

A stigma exists around addiction, and politicians and law enforcement officials want to ensure that people who break the law are punished — and tough punishments are often preferred. Heroin is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it has no medical use and a high potential for abuse.

It’s easy to argue that there is no legitimate reason for someone to use heroin, so they deserve the consequences imposed under the law. Sending addicts to jail will supposedly teach them a lesson and require them to detox from drugs by forcing abstinence upon them. People who hold this opinion believe the addict will emerge from their time behind bars cured of their addiction, ready to live a life of sobriety. With fewer customers for drug dealers to target, drugs consumers are eliminated and the market will dry up. Unfortunately, this presumption is incorrect.

How Sending Heroin Addicts to Jail Affects Society

According to statistics released by the FBI in its annual report Crime in the United States, the number of violent crimes reported in 2014 decreased by 0.2 percent compared to the previous year, and the number of property crimes went down by 4.3 percent from those reported in 2013. The highest number of arrests — 1,561,231 —made in 2014 was for drug abuse violations. The next highest was larceny/theft at 1,238,190 and driving under the influence was the third highest with 1,117,852 arrests.

The US is a world leader in imprisonment. It has only five percent of the population on the planet, but close to 25 percent of its prisoners. The country’s stance on getting tough on crime and mandatory sentencing are only two factors that have contributed to the sharp rise in the prison population over the past half-century.

Imposing harsher sentences on people convicted of crimes seemed like a good strategy at one time. In the 1960s through the eighties, there was an increase in crime rates. As a result, imposing harsher penalties for drug-related offenses — including imposing mandatory sentences — seemed to lower crime rates and deter others from committing similar crimes.

The three strikes laws — which allow mandatory life sentences for a convicted felon who has two or more previous convictions, one of which is a violent crime and the other a serious drug offense — added to the growth in prison populations during this period. Policies ensured that people convicted of a crime served more of their sentence and were less likely to be released early for good behavior.

The policy of jail time for addicts underscores the presumption that these people did something horribly wrong and deserved to be punished severely. It also gave rise to the opinion that someone with a heroin addiction is to be feared because they need to be removed from society and placed in the same environment as people who commit violent offenses.

How Does Imprisonment Affect the Addict?

Heroin addicts who are sentenced to prison are forced to temporarily give up drugs, but that doesn’t mean they’re cured. Addiction is a long-term chronic disease of the brain. Removing a user’s drug of choice doesn’t make the urge to use go away — it only drives it underground.

Within the drug treatment community, detox is not the same as completing a full treatment program. It’s only the first step in helping clients get the help they need to achieve long-term sobriety. To get proper help for addiction, people need counseling to address the underlying reasons why they turned to drugs in the first place. Once the reasons are identified, individuals suffering from addiction can deal with the issue or issues with the help of counselors. Part of the therapy involves learning better ways to cope with feelings like anger, shame, resentment, fear, anxiety and depression.

The solution of jail for heroin addicts also has an unexpected consequence that politicians and law enforcement officials likely did not anticipate when they envisioned stiffer penalties for all drug crimes: Placing non-violent and violent offenders in the same facility means that the heroin addicts will learn how to become better criminals from their fellow inmates. An addict may not be a violent person before spending time in prison, but the incarcerated environment is not conducive to teaching anyone how to be soft and non-aggressive. Putting addicts in prison for what can be several years does not teach them how to behave well in society when they are released.

Prison vs. Rehab for Addicts

When addicts are sentenced to prison, it removes them from the streets and from society. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop them from craving heroin, using it if they can obtain it while imprisoned, or selling it once they are released. Prison doesn’t do anything to treat the underlying issues plaguing a heroin addict, and it surely doesn’t help to encourage sobriety.

An inpatient rehab facility offering long-term drug treatment will operate on a highly structured schedule, although clients will have much more personal freedom than would inmates in prison. The day will be divided into set times for meals, counseling sessions, 12-step program meetings, recreation and free time. There will be a set time when clients are expected to be in their rooms at night. Unlike prison, the focus is not on punishment — the focus is on becoming well. People in rehab learn the tools they need to resist cravings and rebuild their self-esteem after being at the mercy of their addiction.

Family counseling is available to help loved ones deal with their own pain and to educate them about addiction. Their help and support is an important part of the heroin addict’s plan for achieving long-term sobriety after leaving the residential treatment program.

The Result of Prison vs. Rehab Time

When inmates are released from prison, they haven’t learned any coping skills to deal with the underlying causes of their addiction. When you couple that with the stresses of adjusting to life after being incarcerated and the difficulties that parolees face with finding suitable employment and housing, it’s not surprising that addicts who have not had treatment relapse. Once they do, they are a risk for being arrested for not only drug-related offenses but other crimes as well.

Addicts looking to feed a habit are known to commit property crimes — such as theft, break-ins, shoplifting and robberies — in order to get money to buy drugs. If they are unable to find a job or hold onto one because of their addiction — and either scenario is probably due to their record of incarceration and the fact they are using drugs — the likelihood of coming into contact with the justice system after being released from prison increases.

Offering addicts a chance to deal with their illness and heal makes more sense. If we accept the argument that addiction is a disease, why spend so much time, energy and money punishing people who are sick after they’re arrested for only possession? We should treat them for their disease instead. We don’t penalize people living with other medical conditions in the same way. Repeat offenders and people caught distributing and trafficking heroin should be punished accordingly, but an offender caught with a small amount of the drug for personal use is probably a good candidate for treatment, not prison. Most current laws don’t offer anyone that opportunity, so the system doesn’t work well for anyone convicted of a non-violent type of crime involving possession without intent to traffic.

Benefits of Rehab vs. Prison for Addicts

Some jurisdictions offer to transfer cases to drug court instead of criminal court. The offender agrees to go to heroin addiction treatment in exchange for undergoing strict drug testing and counseling. The drug court judge will determine which program an offender must attend and the length of treatment. While in the program, the offender will be monitored regularly to confirm that he or she has not started using drugs again.

Steering addicts to a rehab program give them the chance to get clean and have a fresh start. A court-ordered program puts them in a position to decide to get help or go to prison. This situation makes them face the seriousness of the matter in a way that family and friends may not have been able to make clear to them. And this option is much less expensive to taxpayers than putting drug offenders in prison.

The state of Maryland found significant savings when it implemented alternatives to prisons: costs decreased from $20,000 to $4,000 on average. The savings to taxpayers were significant, even when the cost of treatment, which ranged from $1,800-$6,800, was considered. From an economic standpoint, it makes sense to avoid putting heroin addicts in jail and instead of pointing them toward treatment programs.

From a law enforcement perspective, if more addicts are sent to treatment programs to get the help they need, fewer of them will commit property offenses to support a habit. Police resources could then be used to respond to other types of calls.

Results of Rehab vs. Prison for Addicts

In California, Proposition 36 mandated that offenders coming into the justice system charged with drug-related crimes be treated for their substance abuse issue as opposed to sentenced to prison. This program cost the state millions in the first few years, but over the long term, it is expected to be a good investment, potentially saving CA up to $150 million per year.

City Policy in Gloucester, north of Boston, offers opioid and heroin addicts amnesty from prosecution if they voluntarily turn themselves in at the station and if they’re considered low-risk offenders. They get fast-tracked into treatment. A good portion of the cost is covered through a combination of private and public insurance, as well as grants from service providers. Police also offer some funding from money seized from drug dealers.

Under the Gloucester policy, addicts can turn in drugs or paraphernalia they have on hand, under a no-questions-asked policy. This allows people who wish to participate in a chance to attend treatment with the intention of leaving their old life behind.

Over 100 addicts have taken advantage of this program, some coming from out of state to seek help. Seventy percent of those seeking treatment have been men. All of them have been successfully placed in treatment programs, and the total cost to the police departments has been quite reasonable at $5,000.

About Heroin Rehab

There is no set amount of time that it takes to complete heroin treatment. An addiction did not develop quickly — it developed over time. The best way to treat it is to offer individualized treatment that includes medically supervised detoxification. It’s important for a new client to be free from the influence of the chemical before working on getting to the root of the addiction and learning new coping skills to deal with life in sobriety.

As part of the rehab program, clients are screened to determine whether they are living with a mental illness as well as an addiction. It’s not uncommon for someone to have anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD or another mental health concern, as well as a substance abuse issue. For clients who have a dual diagnosis, treatment for their mental health concern and the addiction is offered concurrently. It’s the best way to ensure that heroin addicts fitting this profile receive the right type of help.

Treating the addiction and ignoring the mental health concern, or vice versa is not the right way to approach the situation. Until a client is free from the influence of chemicals, it is often difficult for medical staff and addictions counselors to determine which symptoms are being caused by the substance abuse and which are due to the mental illness. The drug use can mask some mental health symptoms or make others worse. After a client completes the detox process, a proper diagnosis can be made and an appropriate treatment plan for both concerns can be determined.

How to Find Help for Heroin Addiction

If you or someone you care about is living with heroin addiction, don’t wait another day to start the process of finding help and moving toward a more positive, sober lifestyle. JourneyPure Emerald Coast provides individualized drug treatment services, including medically supervised detoxification. JourneyPure’s experienced staff also treats clients with mental health concerns along with an addiction.

Contact us today and take the first step toward a new life.

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