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Breaking the Cycle of Drug Use and Crime

In 2009, nearly seven million individuals were under supervision of the state and Federal criminal justice systems.  Nearly two million of these individuals were incarcerated for their crimes, while the remaining five million were on probation or parole.  While both the Federal and state correctional systems must address this challenge, states generally bear the costs related to this population, and correctional spending has increased accordingly.  Between 1988 and 2009, state corrections spending increased from $12 billion to $52 billion per year.

Despite these significant expenditures, far too many offenders return to drug use and crime upon their reentry into society.  Part of the reason for this phenomenon is that many offenders are dealing with chronic substance abuse - a disease for which too many are inadequately treated.

Among state prisoners with a substance use disorder, 53 percent had at least three prior sentences to probation or incarceration, compared to 32 percent of other inmates.  Drug dependent or abusing state prisoners (48 percent) were also more likely than other inmates (37 percent) to have been on probation or parole supervision at the time of their arrest.

The revolving door of the Nation’s criminal justice systems is one of the most significant challenges in reducing the devastating consequences of drug use.  This cycle deprives too many Americans of their chance to lead healthy, safe and productive lives.  That’s why the Obama Administration is taking steps to prevent Americans from becoming involved in drug use and crime, and providing a continuum of interventions, treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and reentry support for those that do. We are also focusing on getting treatment to people before their substance use becomes chronic.  

The Administration’s National Drug Control Strategy supports comprehensive change within the criminal justice system, promoting the implementation of a continuum of evidence-based interventions to address the needs of drug-involved offenders, while ensuring the safety of the community.  The goal is to integrate these approaches throughout the justice process:  at arrest, in jail, in the courts, while incarcerated, or upon release back into the community.  One aspect of comprehensive change within the system is to ensure effective alternatives to incarceration and reentry support are provided to these populations.

The Administration’s Strategy promotes a variety of evidence-based alternatives to incarceration for drug-involved offenders.  These include Drug Market Interventions (DMI) to disrupt open-air drug markets; Drug and Veterans Treatment Courts designed to effectively treat the substance abuse and mental health disorders of adults, young people, and Veterans in the system; smart probation strategies, like Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE), to use existing community supervision mechanisms to address probationers’ underlying substance abuse issues; improved service delivery behind the walls of jail and prison; and reentry support to ensure that offenders don’t return to drug use and crime once released. 

States are taking steps to improve how their justice systems address substance-abusing offenders, and are re-examining and reforming sentencing structures to better align with evidence-based approaches.  These approaches include treatment and other supportive services, as well as enhanced community supervision.  Despite budgetary challenges, states must invest in these programs and services to ensure the effectiveness of key sentencing reforms.

The Administration is committed to smarter investments in the criminal justice system, recognizing that addiction is a disease and ensuring that the system is improving the health and safety of our communities.  In the coming weeks, this website will highlight a number of these innovative programs, all of which share the same goal of breaking the cycle of drug use and crime, and ensuring the public health and safety of our citizens.

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Benjamin B. Tucker is Deputy Director of State, Local and Tribal Affairs at the Office of National Drug Control Policy