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Why Imprisonment Is More Harm Than Help to Addicted Offenders

Addiction is a disease, not a crime. While having an addiction won’t land you in prison, a lot of the consequences of drug use and abuse can. So, although people with addiction aren’t incarcerated simply for having this disease, there’s a high percentage of inmates who struggle with addiction and need treatment.

How Are We Addressing Addiction?

Addiction in prisons is an untreated problem, and it’s a growing one. More people in the general population struggle with addiction, and more of these individuals find themselves involved in crimes that lead to arrest.

And this is happening despite research and evidence suggesting that incarcerating people who suffer from addiction is actually more harmful than helpful.


The Relationship Between Addiction and Criminal Behavior

Addiction causes changes in behavior. These changes become harder to ignore as addiction progresses. They may begin with changes in appearance or demeanor at first. They become more pronounced over time. Individuals become increasingly likely to commit crimes as the disease worsens.

Addiction affects individual behavior. It also influences national crime facts and statistics. About one out of every hundred citizens is currently incarcerated. The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other developed nation. The effects of substance abuse may be one of the may reasons why.1

imprisonment stats infographicOut of all the crimes committed in the US, about 80 percent of those that lead to incarceration involve alcohol or drugs. Sixty percent of all people arrested for any crime test positive for at least one illicit substance at the time of their arrest. So, these statistics beg the questions: Why are there so many crimes being committed by addicted offenders? What are these crimes? Is incarceration the answer?

3 Types of Crimes Committed by Addicted Offenders

According to a study, crimes committed by addicts can be broken down into three distinct types.

These types are distinguished by what motivates the crime and include the following:

  1. Use-related: These occur as a result of being heavily intoxicated. In instances of use-related crimes, it’s common for the individual with addiction to not realize they’re committing the crime as it’s occurring.
  2. Economic-related: These crimes are committed as a means of funding a substance abuse habit. They may include prostitution and theft.
  3. System-related: These are a response to the legal system and include production, transportation and selling of illicit substances.2

Understanding why addicted individuals are committing crimes helps decide whether or not incarceration is the next best course of action. The penal system exists so that individuals who commit crimes are punished accordingly. This is why the systemic response is to try, convict and incarcerate an offender, addicted or not. However, there are a couple key problems with imprisoning those who struggle with addiction.

Problems with Incarcerating Addicted Offenders

addiction stats infographicThe first problem with incarcerating addicted offenders is that incarceration does not prevent addicts from further abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Approximately 95 percent of incarcerated addicts will return to substance abuse after their release from prison. 60 to 80 percent of them will commit new crimes.3 Others will become addicted while in prison due to access to smuggled drugs. This is because while incarceration may address the crime, it doesn’t address the underlying issues. It doesn’t treat the disease that contributes to criminal behavior.

Approximately 65 percent of prison inmates in the US meet the diagnostic criteria for addiction. Only 11 percent of those individuals receive any form of treatment.

There’s also the question of safety regarding withdrawal in prison. Although withdrawal doesn’t always put an addicted individual in danger, it can put a person’s health or even his or her life in jeopardy. There have been a number of reports of individuals dying from severe withdrawal while in prison.4 Despite the dangers of detoxing without medical supervision, offenders struggling with addiction are regularly imprisoned and then ignored.

Finding a Solution for Addicted Offenders

Of each tax dollar spent by the government on substance abuse, only 1.9 cents are used for addiction prevention and treatment. At the same time, 95.6 cents are allocated to the punitive system.5 Without treatment that addresses the real issues, offenders often end up caught in a cycle of substance abuse, crime, and incarceration. One potential solution is to give addicted offenders the option to complete a rehabilitation program in lieu of a prison sentence.

This is the goal of the drug courts that have emerged in many jurisdictions throughout the US.6 Additionally effective rehabilitation programs could be offered in prisons to help offenders struggling with addiction get sober and stay sober upon release. Better understanding of and access to treatment before incarceration happens would also greatly reduce the number of addicted individuals finding their way into the judicial system.

Getting Help

Addiction doesn’t have to lead to incarceration. Dealing with addiction can feel lonely and isolating, but when you reach out for help, you’re never alone. If you or a loved one would like more information about detoxification, intervention or addiction treatment options, call 269.280.4673 and speak with one of our experienced, knowledgeable admissions coordinators.


1 “The Facts on Drugs and Crime in America.” National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Accessed 15 May 2018.

2 “Alcohol, Drug and Crime.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. 27 Jun. 2015.

3Treatment or Incarceration?” Justice Policy Institute. Jan. 2004.

4 Burns, Gus. “FBI Investigating Inmate’s Death from Drug Withdrawal in Macombe County Jail.” MLive. 30 Sep. 2015.

5 Sack, David. “We Can’t Afford to Ignore Drug Addiction in Prison.” The Washington Post. 14 Aug. 2014.

6Drug Courts Work.” National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Accessed 26 May 2018.

Written by Dane O’Leary