Mass Incarceration

The Takeaway

Research shows that strict punitive approaches for drug offenders do not reduce crime, improve health, or protect communities. These strategies are costly, ineffective, and will not solve the opioid epidemic.

The Evidence

Punitive approaches to opioid use—specifically, policies that impose harsh punishments on those using or illicitly distributing opioids—have yet again surfaced as a means of tackling our country’s drug addiction epidemic.

However, incarceration-focused approaches to drug use are not rooted in evidence. These policies criminalize people who use substances or suffer from addiction—and this just perpetuates the stigma of addiction, and prevents those with this disease from seeking treatment.

These strategies are costly, ineffective, and will not contribute to ending the epidemic.

The incarceration of drug offenders is based on a common misconception: That drug use is a moral failing rather than a medical disease. True to our evidence-based perspective, Shatterproof advocates against the use of strict prison sentences to curb our country’s addiction crisis.

In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions re-introduced stricter sentencing guidelines, ordering U.S. federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe charges available for drug-related offenses. This includes mandatory minimum sentences for virtually all federal drug crimes. The reintroduction of these policies after previous rollbacks is a part of current strategies to solve the opioid epidemic. However, a substantial body of evidence indicates that mass incarceration is not only ineffective in curbing drug use, it also increases recidivism, health risks of drug use, harmful stigma, and costs.

This punitive approach has burdened the federal government. At the time of this writing, 46% of the people in federal prison are incarcerated due to drug offenses. The federal prison population has increased by 84% between 1998 and 2012, and close to half of that rise is attributable to drug offenses. The growth in the number of imprisoned drug offenders is not due to an increase in convicted offenders or criminality— in fact, 35% of drug offenders have either no or minimal criminal history —but instead due to an increase in prison sentences for offenders, stemming largely from mandatory minimums.

By creating an easier pathway to imprisonment than to treatment, we also lose the opportunity to prevent potential future offenses and imprisonments.

Prison sentences for drug crimes are intended to reduce crime and discourage drug offenses. But many convicted of drug crimes are suffering from substance use disorders, and instead of facilitating rehabilitation and proper disease management, incarceration prevents treatment. By punishing people instead of providing medical care, we lose a valuable opportunity to reduce recidivism. Those incarcerated for drug offenses have 2.22 times the odds of reoffending, compared to those who are diverted to treatment, and meta analyses have shown that diverting drug offenders to treatment results in an approximate 26% reduction in overall reoffending when compared to incarceration-based approaches. The odds of committing any type of criminal offense are three to four times greater for drug users than non-drug users.

Incarcerating these individuals, particularly for long amounts of time, increases spending without having a substantial impact on community safety. A rigorous analysis of the policy of imprisoning drug offenders demonstrates that such an approach provides, at most, very limited benefit in terms of crime reduction—on the level of 1-3%. The increase in prisoners due to drug offenses also has the effect of “crowding out” other offenders, forcing them to be released into the community.

Diverting drug offenders to treatment instead of incarceration has been shown to be as safe for communities as traditional prosecution, and tends to have a more positive impact than traditional correctional responses. These programs are also a more cost effective alternative: calculations have shown that a treatment-focused approach has the potential to save $47,836 per person in criminal justice system costs over six years when compared to incarceration.

The negative impacts of incarceration for drug offenses do not stop after an individual is released from prison. Following imprisonment, many drug offenders enter the ‘revolving prison door’: Facing limited employment options and a jarring reentry process, many of these individuals reoffend. Additionally, incarceration and subsequent reentry have long-term negative impacts on individuals and their communities due to, among other factors, an increase in health disparities upon release, limited employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, fractured family structures impacting the mental health of children, and voting disenfranchisement. Imprisonment also increases the likelihood of death after release, particularly due to drug overdose following decreased drug tolerance while in prison. In one study, during the first two weeks of reentry, prisoners had 129 times the risk of death from drug overdose as compared to other state residents.

Costly, ineffective, and deadly. The research shows that strict punitive approaches for drug offenders do not reduce crime, improve health, or protect communities. These policies continue to overcrowd the federal prison system, and they harm the families and communities who need help the most. Imprisoning drug users punishes those suffering from the disease of substance use disorder, rather than treating them.

Shatterproof opposes mass incarceration as a strategy to curb the opioid epidemic. Instead, we advocate for connecting all individuals with substance use disorders, whether they’re criminally involved or not, with effective, science-based treatment.

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