Are Incentives for Drug Abuse Treatment Too Strong? (Feature)

By Simpson, Mark | Corrections Today, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Are Incentives for Drug Abuse Treatment Too Strong? (Feature)


Simpson, Mark, Corrections Today


Correctional staff who work outside of drug treatment occasionally question if drug abuse incentives are even necessary. Some may argue that the only incentives offenders should have for participating in drug treatment is the opportunity to overcome their addictions and straighten out their lives. They may further argue that any other incentives, e.g., early parole or better prison living conditions, such as preferred housing and enhanced recreational opportunities, only encourage offenders to fake their way through treatment to get the secondary benefits. Incentives, they believe, get in the way of treatment.

To some extent, correctional staff who express this opinion have a point. Incentives, if not handled properly, can seriously undermine treatment. On the other hand, without incentives, offenders may not take advantage of the opportunity for treatment in the first place. In a perfect world, incarceration would make offenders realize that their substance abuse has caused them great pain and deprived them of their freedom, and they would gratefully volunteer for drug treatment and devote their full energies toward overcoming their addictions. However, if offenders acted in this manner, they most likely would never be incarcerated to begin with. They would have realized that their substance abuse was causing them unwanted consequences and would have taken the necessary steps to avoid incarceration. However, offenders typically do not think this way and the eventual consequences for their lack of responsibility are arrest and incarceration.

To appreciate the importance of drug treatment incentives, one must understand that substance-abusing offenders view drugs in a radically different way than the criminal justice system. For corrections professionals, drug use equals loss of control, personal destruction and possibly death. For offenders, drugs are viewed as the means for obtaining money, power, sex and the relief from overwhelming feelings of shame, guilt and anger. When drug treatment is offered to help offenders, correctional employees believe they are offering them a solution to their problems. However, offenders do not view drug treatment as a solution--drugs and alcohol are their solutions. Drug treatment threatens to remove offenders from the very thing they believe they need for their survival. When seen from this perspective, it is not surprising that offenders often are reluctant to become involved in drug treatment unless other incentives are provided beyond the opportunity to give up drugs and alcohol.

Incentives can provide offenders with the motivation they need to volunteer for drug treatment, even if the initial goal is to gain the incentives rather than to give up drug use or criminal activity. Does it really matter that incentives can induce offenders to volunteer for treatment for what we would regard as the wrong reasons?

Interestingly, research consistently indicates that offenders' motivations for entering drug treatment are not as important in treatment outcome as other factors. Major longitudinal studies have found drug treatment effectiveness to be directly related to the length of stay in treatment. (1) Offenders' initial motivation for entering treatment programs is not as important as their ultimate length of stay in treatment. These findings remain consistent regardless of whether their participation in treatment is voluntary or coerced. This point is vital, given the fact that treatment in a correctional environment always involves an element of coercion, even if the offender is not subject to sanctions if he or she does not choose to participate. Incentives can provide the motivation offenders need to volunteer for treatment and remain in treatment long enough to obtain benefits toward reductions in substance abuse and criminal activity.

Effective Incentives

To find the most effective incentives, one must understand offenders' motivations. …

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