Addiction treatment could fix U.S. prisons

Prisons_edited Colby Patterson
Lindsay Schuring

Lindsay Schuring

Rarely do I have something kind to say about Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), so don’t take this brief moment of clemency I give the Tea Party favorite lightly. Lee’s proposed legislation seeks to extend more equitable sentences to inmates not grandfathered in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The act decreased the gap in prison sentences between crack cocaine offenders and those incarcerated with the powdered form. While this is a commendable step in undoing the damage caused by the “war on drugs,” this is a far cry from addressing the United States’ underlying issues regarding prisons and drug users.

Lee’s proposed legislation is based on the grounds of fiscal responsibility and giving credence to the very real problem of over-crowding. According to a report released by the Urban Institute, federal prisons on average maintain a 136 percent capacity — that is to say, they are holding far more prisoners than their resources should allow them to. Of these prisoners, over one million have a history of substance abuse and are often incarcerated for either drug-related offenses. In order to stem this tide of overpopulation, a societal shift in views regarding drugs needs to take place.

The lifestyle of an addict is difficult. The addiction will oftentimes override their decision-making in pursuit of the next fix. Because of the societal stigmas and legal standing of addictive drugs, in order to fulfill their all-consuming cravings, a criminal lifestyle is not far from view. However, these are people that should not be incarcerated. Instead, they should be assisted to lead a lifestyle that does not revolve around their addiction.

Luckily, a solution may be available. Several large-scale studies conducted in Europe of what is known as “heroin assisted treatment” have proved beneficial in providing a second chance for addicts at becoming fully functioning members of society. Of the studies conducted in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and many more countries, each concluded that heroin assisted treatment allowed addicts to maintain jobs, start families and in some cases wean themselves off the drug entirely. This further allowed them to establish a sense of stability, which included having a permanent residence without threat of homelessness.

Of course, convincing certain people to trust drug assisted therapies does not prove so simple. According to a statement released by proponents of drug prohibition at a conference in Brussels, such therapies would “promote the false notion that there are safe or responsible ways to use drugs.” This would be a rational conclusion were the matter investigated only superficially. Member of the University of Zürich’s Clinic for General and Social Psychiatry Rudolf Stohler countered by saying that institutionalizing the treatment of addiction “seems to have contributed to the image of heroin as unattractive for young people.”

Addiction is a real problem in America, as is prison overcrowding, and the two are certainly linked. I applaud Mike Lee for addressing the issue, even if peripherally. However, we must not condemn those who find themselves in the unfortunate circumstance of an addictive lifestyle. By making treatment readily available and socially acceptable, perhaps we can curtail prison overcrowding by realistically addressing an addict’s issues. We live in the 21st century, but as a country we still seem to be stuck using a previous century’s approach to ridding the world of anything viewed as “bad.” We must take the pragmatic, not the idealistic, route to bettering society.