Magazine article Corrections Forum

Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America's Prison Population

Magazine article Corrections Forum

Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America's Prison Population

Article excerpt

Three years in the making, the CASA report is the most penetrating analysis ever attempted of the relationship of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction to the explosion of America's prison population.

The raw numbers tell an astounding story. Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction are implicated in the crimes and incarceration of 80 percent-some 1.4 million of the 1.7 million men and women behind bars in America. Those 1.4 million offenders in state and federal prisons and local jails violated drug or alcohol laws, were high at the time they committed their crimes, stole property to buy drugs, or have a history of drug and alcohol abuse and addictionor share some combination of these characteristics. Among these 1.4 million inmates are parents of 2.4 million children, many of them minors.

Thanks largely to alcohol and drug abuse, the rate of incarceration for American adults was 868 per 100,000 adults in 1996, compared to less than 100 per 100,000 for most European countries and 47 per 100,000 for Japan. The expense of building and operating prisons is the 800 pound gorilla in most state budgets, with spending rising at a break-neck pace-increasing 28 percent in 1996 compared to a 3 percent increase in Medicaid spending.

From 1980 to 1996, the number of people in prison has tripled due overwhelmingly to criminal activity spawned by drug and alcohol abuse. If this rate of increase continues, then one in every 20 Americans born in 1997 will spend some time during their life in prison, including one in every 11 men and one in every four black men. While the 130,000 female inmates constitute only 7.7 percent of the prison population, their numbers are rising at twice the rate of increase for male inmates and drugs and alcohol lurk in the shadows of incarceration for 80 percent of these women as well.

This study demonstrates that criminal recidivism is very much a function of drug and alcohol abuse. The more often an individual is imprisoned, the likelier that inmate is to be a drug or alcohol addict or abuser. Forty-one percent firsttime offenders have a history of regular drug use; the proportion jumps to 81 percent for those with five or more prior convictions. Regardless of the crimes they commit, individuals who test positive for drugs at the time of arrest have longer criminal records and have been imprisoned more often than those who do not test positive.

The most troublesome aspect of these grim statistics is that the nation is doing so little to change them. From 1993 to 1996, as the number of inmates needing substance abuse Treatment climbed from 688,000 to 840,000, the number of inmates in treatment hovered around 150,000-and much of the treatment they are receiving is inadequate. From 1995 to 1996, the number of inmates in treatment deceased as the number in need of treatment rose.

Contrary to conventional wisdom and popular myth, alcohol is more tightly linked with more violent crimes than crack, cocaine, heroin or any other illegal drug. In state prisons, 21 percent of inmates in prison for violent crimes were under the influence of alcohol-and no other substance-when they committed their crime; in contrast, at the time of their crimes, only three percent of violent offenders were under the influence of cocaine or crack alone, only one percent under the influence of heroin alone.

If (as federal and state laws and regulations provide) the objective of our criminal justice and prison system is to protect the public safety by incarcerating incorrigible offenders and rehabilitating as many others as possible, the prevailing policy of prison only-with no treatment or preparation for return to the community-is, as Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes puts it, "lunacy." For treatable alcohol and drug abusers, mandatory sentences (particularly those which require convicts to serve their entire time in prison with no parole) endanger rather than protect the public safety. Release of untreated drug and alcohol addicted inmates is tantamount to visiting criminals on society. …

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