Drugs and the Criminal Justice System

X. Drugs and Prisons

Much like the courts, the U.S. prison system has little voice in the number of cases it must handle. Both the number of inmates entering the system and the length of time they will stay is beyond the control of prison administrators. Like the courts, there is no annual reporting of the types of crimes for which individuals are imprisoned in state and federal institutions combined. It is clear, however, that drug offenders comprise a substantial proportion of prison inmates in the United States. At the federal level, for example, drug offenders make up about 60% of prison inmates, and nationally, both the number and the rate of people in prison is at its highest level in history.

To focus only on the number of inmates in prison on drug-related charges misses the bigger picture. Many who are in prison on other charges have a drug problem. Drug-using offenders enter prison with a host of other problems that burden the system. They are likely to have more health-related problems than other inmates, including HIV and hepatitis C. Drug-using offenders are also more likely to have mental health problems. In addition, inmates with a drug problem may try to smuggle drugs into the institution.

Prisons have responded to the surge in drug-using inmates through a variety of programs. Most institutions allow for 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Beyond that, some institutions have set aside separate units as therapeutic communities in which everyone living in the unit is involved in drug treatment. Some states have gone even further and set aside entire institutions as treatment facilities.

XI. Future Directions

Predicting the future is always a challenge, and this is particularly true regarding illicit drug use. While many users have their favorite drug, users are notorious for using whatever drug is most available, making interdiction difficult as users switch from one substance to another. In an era when television and print media are flooded with advertisements for legal drugs that will treat any condition, real or imaginary, it’s difficult to see a time when America will truly be drug free. It is not surprising that the most recent trend is the illicit use of legally manufactured prescription drugs.

Tackling the problem of illicit drugs requires recognition of differences between experimental or casual users and hard-core addicts. Something like an 80–20 rule seems to be true for illicit drugs—20% of drug users consume 80% of the drugs. That hard-core 20% is also the group most likely to be involved in crime and to come to the attention of the criminal justice system. That group is also least likely to respond to prevention or treatment programs. The criminal justice system may be a useful tool for identifying this hard-core group, but the important question is what happens to those hard-core users after they have been identified. The rise of drug courts and therapeutic communities in prisons represents responses to the problem, but a frustratingly large number of new drug offenders continue to enter the system. This suggests that the United States cannot arrest its way out of the drug problem and that more must be done to prevent drug use and drug-related crime.

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