Rehab vs Jail: Which One Works?

Imagine a city that does not treat addiction like a statistic. Where an overdose is not just a news story with judgmental comments; but a mission to preserve life and fix a disease. A city where problems are addressed and rehabilitated, not locked up and punished. Imagine a city where addicts seeking help are no longer arrested and imprisoned, but referred to paid treatment. This city exists and it is Gloucester, Massachusetts.  Between January and March 2015, there were four overdose deaths in Gloucester, the police chief realized something had to be done and made a mandate – no more jailing addicts searching for help… We will pay to have them rehabilitated.

At the start of 2016, we have already had 2 deaths and 12 overdoses in Wilmington, and more than 7 overdose deaths in Cincinnati, making Ohio second in drug overdose deaths nationwide. Four deaths in 3 months and a police chief is able to recognize a problem, mandate a possible solution, and put 116 people in to rehabilitation, costing less than $5,000. Or as Police Chief Leonard Campanello put it, “under $5,000.00 … for 100 lives”.

In Kentucky, we have over 11,000 people in state prisons, 25% of our inmates are imprisoned on drug related, non-violent crimes. We need to stop incarcerating the people that piss us off and incarcerate the people who scare us. What We need to spend money on rehabilitation versus prison potentially creating career criminals. As Doctor Howard Samuel states, “25 years ago, I was shooting heroin and cocaine and had been since I was a teenager. I ended up in jail. The judge offered me prison or rehab. I chose rehab and was locked up for a year. Treatment saved this convicted felon’s life.”

Almost half of the inmates sent to prison are incarcerated in part due to an active drug or alcohol problem, but only 10% of those people receive the rehabilitation they need to heal while they are behind bars. In the “Crime and Delinquency” Journal, the researchers found that if just 10% of eligible offenders were treated in community based programs instead of being sent to prison, the criminal justice system would save $4.5 billion dollars. We could be saving money helping people make themselves better,  instead we are filling our prisons to max capacity with lost and confused people and joining them with violent rapists and murderers.

We know that rehabilitation doesn’t always work. And we certainly do not want to release an addict into the community without any follow-up and support for fear of relapse. But, do we need to treat them as violent criminals? As a danger to society because they smoked some weed? After a 6 months to a year of rehabilitation and transitional living, why can’t we put these people into a weekly support group with mandatory drug testing. Set a mandatory probationary period of two years to ensure the addict is able to survive on their own without relapsing. It’s still much cheaper and more productive than incarceration. It’s fixing a problem instead of trying to hide it away. It’s encouraging life versus accepting a possible death – another statistic.

The problem to this suggestion is that there is little interest in investing money in treatment. We are fine paying for a vastly expensive prison system to hide addicts away, but no one is concerned about the savings by investing in rehabilitation now. Not just to the tax payers financially, but to the lives that potentially will no longer be lost. We have to be willing to invest in solutions, not just in punishments.  We have to be willing to help. We have to support life and help rehabilitate. We need less judgment and more empathy.

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