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Understanding the Treatment Vs Incarceration Debate


While researching facts and statistics to properly address the dilemma of treatment vs incarceration, I must admit I was taken aback. For starters there was this, courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union: With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 20% of the world’s prison population. This makes the U.S. the world’s largest jailer. But that doesn’t depict the whole story. The fact of the matter is that prison rates in the United States are the world’s highest at 724 people per 100,000, says BBC News. Similarly, the International Center for Prison Studies reports that the total prison population (including pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners) amounts to 2,217,947. But when we take a closer look into the total number of prisoners for drug related offenses, the number is even more disturbing. Per its latest update on March 26 2016, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports a total number of 85,419 inmates. This number in turn represents a 46.4% of the total inmate population. As for how taxable the overcrowding of American prisons is to the American economy, the numbers are quite revealing. The Vera Institute of Justice released a study in 2012 that found the aggregate cost of prisons in 2010 in the 40 states that participated in the survey was $39 billion. Additionally, according to the New York Times, New York leads the country in the highest cost per inmate with an annual average cost of $60,000 per inmate.


Let’s start with some sound data and perspective for you to draw some conclusions: Newswise says that nearly half of all state prisoners are drug abusers or drug dependent but only 10 percent receive medically based drug treatment during incarceration. So the larger question is, are we failing the remaining 90% by not providing them with fair conditions for recovery or are we incarcerating them with no long term hope or solution to their disease? In the absence of adequate treatment, the chances of inmates resuming their drug abuse are significantly higher. By not addressing their substance abuse, former prisoners also have increased chances of committing crimes again once they leave prison.

Meanwhile, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that the cost of treating drug abuse (including health costs, hospitalizations, and government specialty treatment) was estimated to be $14.6 billion, a fraction of these overall societal costs (NDIC, 2011). Similarly, the journal Crime & Delinquency states that researchers found that if just 10 percent of eligible offenders were treated in community-based programs instead of going to prison, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion as compared with current practices. If 40 percent of eligible offenders received treatment, the savings would total $12.9 billion.

When zeroing in on the public safety issue, the National Institute on Drug Abuse weighs in saying that the largest economic benefit of treatment is seen in avoided costs of crime (incarceration and victimization costs). NIDA goes on to further propose that methadone treatment to opioid-addicted prisoners prior to their release may not only help them reduce their drug use, but also avoid the much higher imprisonment costs for drug-related crimes.

Unsurprisingly, and on the grounds of fairness, cost effectiveness, and public safety, a decisive change of philosophy and practice is not just gaining ground in Washington. Clearly, it will take more than the reach of the federal government to substantially overhaul drug addiction treatment. Moreover, it is said too that different states as well as health care providers could jointly exert a fundamental role, not only in the prevention, but also in the treatment and recovery of individuals embattled with drug addiction.


Interestingly, President Obama announced recently an initiative – a revision to the failing War on Drugs – whereby a $100 million in new funding will be allocated to drug-addiction centers. Diametrically opposed to previous approaches, this one humanizes the issue by making it a public health priority rather than a criminal issue. An increasing budget and favorable political environment could constitute a positive step in the right direction towards a sound and effective health and public safety program. Again, the adoption and enactment of public health policy reflecting an evidence-based approach rather than misguided policies built on fear-based arguments could help usher a new era in drug prevention and treatment.



Drug War Facts. Prisons, Jails, and People Arrested for Drugs. Retrieved May 4, 2016

Newswise. Replacing Prison Terms with Drug Abuse Treatment Could Save Billions in Criminal Justice Costs. Retrieved May 4, 2016.

Crime & Delinquency. Lifetime Benefits and Costs of Diverting Substance-Abusing Offenders From State Prison. Retrieved May 4, 2016.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Is providing drug abuse treatment to offenders worth the financial investment? Retrieved May 4, 2016

U.S. Department of Justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Prisoners in 2014. Retrieved May 4, 2016

CBS News. The Cost of a Nation of Incarceration. Retrieved May 4, 2016

SmartAsset. The Economics of the American Prison System. Retrieved May 4, 2016

ACLU. The Prison Crisis. Retrieved May 4, 2016

New York Times, City’s Annual Cost Per Inmate Is $168,000, Study Finds