Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Substance Abuse Control: How Do We Measure Success?

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Substance Abuse Control: How Do We Measure Success?

Article excerpt


According to the former Attorney General of the United States, John Ascroft, law enforcement more doubled their arrest rate for drug offenses between the mid-1980's and 2000 (Anonymous 2001, 2). He stated that tougher federal drug laws and stricter enforcement were making a difference in eliminating the major drug offenders from our nation's streets. Arrest rates are a traditional form of measurement in law enforcement, but it is unclear how successful arrests and convictions have been to eliminating substance abuse.

In the age of Evidence Based Practices, it is nice to know what works best. But the problem of substance abuse is so complex and multidimensional that it is difficult to measure success or failure adequately. Those using illegal drugs are labeled addicts, substance abusers, drug offenders, and criminals. Criminal justice agencies and treatment facilities alike intervene. While both seek to control substance abuse, they differ widely in their methods and measurements of success. Criminal justice strives to control substance abuse through incapacitation by separating drug users from the supply of drugs. Like a body count in a battle, the number of arrests and convictions are used to measure the gains made in controlling illegal drugs. Recidivism and revocation can be seen as failures to maintain that control. While recidivism can provide direct measures of the criminal elements of substance abuse, relapse points to the clinical factors related to treatment failures. Preventing relapses back into drug use has been the focus of much of the research in evidence based practices. However, recidivism and relapse measures tend to restrict our vision of the problem and the many other potential solutions. There are less conventional means of evaluating what works that may be more encompassing and have more relevance to society. However, these processes may require a reorganization of our perception of success. This paper examines the measurement of substance abuse from a multidimensional point of view in order to augment our evaluation of success.

Extent of the Problem

It is estimated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that by the year 2000 almost 57% of U.S. federal prisoners and 21% of state prisoners were drug offenders (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2007). It is has been noted in previous research that a quarter to a third of offenders were using illegal drugs at the time of their offense, and about three-quarters of all offenders had a history of drug abuse (Harrison 2001). The relationship between crime and drug use appears significant. However, it would be a mistake to place all drug offenders into one classification. There are offenders who used drugs as a part of their offense or as a reason for their offense. Other offenders may be classified as criminals who also use drugs. Finally, there are offenders who are merely people who have an addiction to illegal drugs, but no other form of criminal behavior. These three types of drug offenders call for three types of measurements and three types of control methods.

Traditional Measurements

Due to the increase in federal drug offense laws since 1994, more offenders are being targeted for arrest. However, arrests demonstrate the large extent of the problem rather than a success in controlling the problem. Traditionally, various measures of recidivism have been employed to justify or denounce policies and programs attacking illicit drug use. Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted measure of recidivism (Israel and Chui 2006). It varies widely depending on the agency and purpose for the analysis. At its core, recidivism looks for behaviors or violations of conditions that are prohibited. Violations may take many different forms to include criminal acts, procedural breaches of probation or parole supervision, and other prohibited non-criminal behavior. Likewise, a violation may be an omission of behavior such as not submitting to drug testing or failing to complete substance abuse treatment. …

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