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The Relationship Between Addiction and the Criminal Justice System: How We Can Improve Public Health Through Incarcerated Offenders Who Suffer from Substance Use Disorders

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Currently, over 7 million adults are under criminal justice supervision in the United States, including probation or incarceration. Furthermore, figures estimate that half of all prisoners meet the criteria for being drug dependent or having substance use disorders. According to an article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), if we implement effective addiction treatments into the criminal justice system, we could drastically improve public health and, therefore, reduce criminal behavior.

The Relationship Between Addiction and The Criminal Justice System

In the past three decades, there have been significant advances in the science of addiction. However, there is a gap between the research of addiction and the treatment of it, specifically relating to the criminal justice system. Although research repeatedly shows that addiction is a disease of the brain, most substance use disorder (SUD) sufferers do not get treatment. Incarceration may be a barrier to treatment, dependent upon the resources available to each particular prison facility and the prison culture in general. Often, incarcerated offenders who suffer from SUDs are not receiving proper psychological care while imprisoned.

Furthermore, illicit drugs are available to imprisoned individuals, regardless of the highly organized and structured environments. These drug-seeking behaviors often lead to illegal activities and disturbing actions within the prison. Therefore, there is a rare opportunity available in which changes to prison systems and their resources for these individuals may decrease substance abuse and thus reduce criminal behavior in prisons themselves. 

Drug Use and Treatment Before and After Incarceration

It is a missed opportunity not to treat an offender with SUD, as it could instantaneously improve public health and safety to do so. Incorporating treatment for SUDs into the criminal justice system would provide treatment to people who would not receive it otherwise. Furthermore, it would improve and lessen their medical issues and rates of reincarceration or recidivism, which is characterized by the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend. Incarceration lacks in addressing substance use disorders for imprisoned offenders since over one-quarter of people reincarcerated test positive for drug use. Despite being incarcerated or not, the challenges of maintaining sobriety and recovery from alcohol or drugs are universal. Notably, the following multiple stressors increase the risk of relapse:

  • Being labeled as an ex-offender
  • Difficulties in finding housing
  • Finding appropriate employment
  • Reuniting with family
  • Various requirements for criminal justice supervision

Possible Interventions for the Criminal Justice System

Research reports the multiple benefits of treatment in addressing SUDs inside of the criminal justice system. In doing so, the criminal justice system can encourage those suffering from SUDs to enter treatment and maintain recovery. These possible interventions include:

  • Therapeutic alternatives to imprisonment
  • Treatment combined with drug courts
  • Jail and prison-based treatments
  • Programs focusing on helping offenders’ transition from being incarcerated to being released

Research consistently shows that community-based treatment reduces drug use and related criminal behaviors. Individuals who participate in treatment while incarcerated and enter a community-based program after being released are seven times more likely to remain abstinent from substances and three times less likely to be re-arrested than those not in treatment. Successful interventions depend on organization and cooperation between treatment providers, criminal justice agencies, social service organizations, mental health care institutions, and physical health care establishments. Each type of criminal justice organization, such as drug court, probation, jail, or prison, has a role in authorizing and supervising specific interventions. 

Drug education is the most common resource offered to imprisoned persons with SUDs. Although treatment during incarceration and after release proves to reduce drug use and criminal behaviors, less than one in five inmates receive any formal treatment. The prison system lacks the resources, groundwork, and competent treatment staff required to meet the needs of SUD individuals. Sadly, addiction and substance use disorders remain stigmatized and not recognized as a medical condition by the criminal justice system, and therefore, treatment is not guaranteed. 


There are therapeutic strategies for SUD sufferers that the criminal justice system could use that will alleviate recidivism, lessen substance abuse, and decrease criminal behaviors. The benefits outweigh the costs when implementing self-help organizations, like Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, into criminal justice agencies. For every dollar spent on drug courts, over four dollars is saved per individual in costs related to avoiding incarceration and health care, while prison-based treatments can save over six dollars per individual.

Substance use treatment in criminal justice agencies needs to complement the setting. For example, since jail stays are shorter, screening for drug and alcohol use disorders, mental illnesses, and medical conditions would be useful. Then, those individuals can refer to treatment providers in the community. In prison, punishment is ineffective in treating SUDs. Therefore, the system requires the organization of treatment options that aim to help the individual battling their addiction to drugs or alcohol while reforming behaviors. 

Looking for Help?

Substance use disorders can lead to criminal behaviors due to the addiction itself and drug-seeking behaviors. Research is constantly evolving, especially relating to positive treatment options for addictions, which is changing the face of the criminal justice system. If you are battling an addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone, and there is hope for your recovery. At Enlightened Solutions,  we understand the complexities of addiction and foster hope for the future. If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, call us today at 833-801-LIVE.


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