Decades of treating substance abuse disorders like criminal issues have only worsened the struggle with addiction in the United States. Overdose rates have skyrocketed in recent years, and substance abuse has become a public health epidemic in addition to a criminal justice challenge.
Some researchers point to the punitive approach to substance abuse as one of the reasons it has become such a prevalent issue. By treating addiction like a crime, the state helps reinforce cycles of addiction and criminal behavior.
Many states have started seeking means of addressing substance abuse problems in their residents by diverting certain cases from the traditional criminal courts. The drug courts are an alternative means of addressing criminal activity related to substance abuse. They are a way of breaking the cycle in which criminal activity and substance abuse feed into each other.
What does the data show?
A shocking number of people involved in the criminal justice system in the United States have an active substance abuse disorder. Federal estimates indicate that 85% of the people in state custody at any given time have an active addiction or were under the influence of mind-altering substances at the time of an offense.
These individuals often do not get the help that they need while in state custody and continue to struggle for years. They serve time in prison, where they experience trauma that only worsens their substance abuse disorder. Upon release, the lack of structure and social stigma from their addiction will likely hold them back from reintegrating seamlessly into society. Many will re-offend or will self-medicate and end up breaking the law because of their renewed habit of substance use.
How the drug courts break the cycle
Instead of treating someone accused of an offense related to drugs like someone who needs punishment, the drug courts help connect them with treatment. The drug courts require chemical testing and substance abuse treatment, as well as frequent interactions with court officials.
Successful completion of the drug court process can help people regain control over their substance abuse disorders while simultaneously avoiding criminal conviction and incarceration in state facilities. Recognizing how a substance abuse issue may have contributed to recent criminal charges can help those hoping to improve their lives after an arrest.