By Williams, Melvin L.
Corrections Today , Vol. 70, No. 6
In response to public outcry, U.S. lawmakers have determined that using, selling, purchasing and possessing certain drugs are criminal acts. This has created an explosion in the U.S. prison population. Punishment for these acts ranges from a slap on the wrist to life in prison. Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars. The U.S. is a nation of laws that concern behavior, especially when it is perceived that the behavior will infringe on the rights of others. The dilemma, then, for corrections professionals when substance abusing offenders are incarcerated is what can be done?
During the past 30 years, a whole new set of offenders has emerged as a result of the war on drugs. Since 1970, the state and federal prison population has grown nearly seven-fold. (1) Certainly most would agree that law enforcement agencies have not been successful in stopping the flow of illegal drugs into this country, nor had the public been successful in curtailing their use. This comes at a tremendous financial cost to taxpayers. According to the National Association of State Budgeting Officers, states spent $44 billion in tax dollars on corrections in 2007. That is up from $10.6 billion in 1987. With money from bonds and the federal government included, total state spending on corrections in 2007 was $49 billion. The report also revealed that states are on track to spend an additional $25 billion by 2011.
In addition to the obvious costs, there are hidden expenses. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, health care costs attributable to drug abuse were projected to total $15.8 billion in 2002. (2) Many practitioners estimate that as high as 80 percent of the incarcerated population are there due to drugs, whether it is possession, sale or trying to obtain funds through illegal means to purchase them. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently reported that 53 percent of state inmates and 45 percent of federal inmates meet criteria of drug abuse or dependence, and 16.6 percent of state inmates and 18.4 percent of federal inmates committed their crimes to obtain money for drugs. (3)
With almost 2 million individuals in detention centers and prisons across the country and an estimated 6 million more under criminal justice supervision, it can be surmised that the majority are there due to drug-related crimes. Between 1995 and 2005, admissions to drug treatment increased 37.4 percent and federal spending on drug treatment increased 14.6 percent. During the same period, violent crime fell 31.5 percent. (4) There are many reasons for this drop, but it cannot be overlooked that when spending on treatment increased, violent crime fell.
The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on incarceration and treatment, but with recidivism rates in the 60 percent range, taxpayers are asking why the nation is not doing better. How specifically are corrections professionals expected to reform these offenders?
The Role of Corrections
The role of the corrections field is to protect society by rehabilitating offenders. Returning someone back to the community with improved skills and attitudes that they learned while incarcerated gives that person a better chance for success, thus protecting the community. However, the substance abuse offender population still remains a major challenge for the corrections field because once these offenders enter correctional facilities, there is no national treatment handbook or guide correctional staff can use to rehabilitate them. The silver bullet of substance abuse treatment has not yet been discovered. In addition, U.S. courts have consistently embroiled themselves in the operations of correctional facilities, demanding more responses to individual offender needs. …