Identifying the Proper Drug-Abuse Treatment for Offenders

By Simpson, Mark T. | Corrections Today, December 2008 | Go to article overview
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Identifying the Proper Drug-Abuse Treatment for Offenders


Simpson, Mark T., Corrections Today


The criminal justice system, with respect to drug abuse treatment, has come a long way since the dark old days of "nothing works." By the late 1990s, nearly half of all adult and juvenile correctional facilities were providing some level of drug abuse treatment. By 2003, nearly three-fourths of all prisons provided such services. (1) The proliferation of drug abuse treatment for offenders extends beyond the walls of prisons and jails. It is now estimated that the criminal justice system generates nearly 50 percent of all referrals to community-based drug abuse treatment. (2) With state legislatures searching for cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, the growth in drug abuse treatment for offenders can only be expected to continue.

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The Link Between Drugs and Crime

So why has the criminal justice system turned to drug treatment in such a big way? Certainly, a hypothesized link between drug use and crime offers one explanation. As the theory goes, if people turn to crime to support their drug use, then treatment aimed at stopping offenders' drug use will also impact their propensity to commit crime. A reduction in the demand for drugs therefore results in a reduction in crime. Viewed from this perspective, drug treatment is a win-win situation for the offender as well as for society. How could anyone argue against this public policy strategy?

The drug-crime link, however, presupposes the notion that offenders are addicts who, absent their addiction, would live a crime-free, pro-social life. This may not necessarily be the case. To illustrate this point, offenders can be categorized as belonging to one of two groups. The first group of offenders can be thought of as living primarily a criminal lifestyle. That is, their lives are organized around criminal activity as a way of life. These offenders engage in crime as a means to obtain money, sex, material possessions and status. For these offenders, drug use is not the primary focus of their lives; rather, drugs are viewed as a means to support their criminal enterprise. The second group of offenders can be thought of as living primarily an addict lifestyle. That is, their lives are organized primarily around their use of alcohol and other psychoactive substances. Unlike offenders who manifest a criminal lifestyle, these offenders are the "true" addicts. Their crimes, whether it is simple possession, prescription drug fraud or more serious crimes such as vehicular homicide, are committed primarily as a consequence of their use of alcohol and other drugs.

Although offenders can exhibit either a criminal or addict lifestyle, it is likely that many offenders exhibit aspects of both. Although no research exists to specify the degree of overlap between these two populations, it probably depends on a variety of factors, including the type and security level of the facility in which offenders are housed (e.g., jail vs. prison, high vs. low security). Regardless, there is little evidence to suggest that illicit drug use converts nonoffenders into offenders; rather, drug use appears to intensify criminal activity among those who are already offenders. (3) As a consequence, it can be expected that a large percentage of offenders who use drugs also exhibit a criminal lifestyle.

Targeting the Treatment

What happens when these two groups of offenders are separated from their drugs of choice? Consider the case of the lifestyle addict. There is a truism in addictions treatment that individuals stop growing up emotionally when they start abusing alcohol and other drugs. This is because drugs and alcohol become the means by which substance abusers cope (or actually avoid coping) with life's problems. The earlier those individuals start relying on alcohol and other drugs as a coping mechanism, the earlier they stop developing more mature coping skills. Typically, offenders begin using drugs--particularly alcohol and marijuana--in their teen years.

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