Care, not incarceration for drug offenders

Drug treatment programs are more financially and mentally beneficial.

MichaelaWinbergBWI’m a student at Temple, and I’m on my way to class. I have my backpack, loaded with a few textbooks, a notebook and a pen.

First, I stuff my cell phone and my jewelry into a tiny locker. Then, I take off my shoes and proceed through the metal detector. I realize that I forgot to remove the under wire from my bra that week, and the guard reminds me that I am not allowed to bring any metal at all inside the prison. He says that today, he’ll let it slide, but he’s not doing me any favors next week.

Though I’m taking a class with Temple, I’m not on Main Campus. Hosted at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, my Drugs in Urban Society class is made up of half “outside students,” or Temple students, and half “inside students,” who are female prisoners. When I listen to people’s personal stories and academic opinions about drug addiction, it never matters whether the speaker is wearing jeans and a T-shirt or a dark green jumpsuit.

According to an article in The Huffington Post published in 2014, more than 50 percent of prisoners are incarcerated nationwide due to nonviolent, drug-related offenses. So, statistically, at least 25 percent of the students in my class are currently locked up for a nonviolent, drug-related offense. That number is too high.

Maryland has instituted alternative-to-incarceration programs for drug offenders,  according to an article published by the Justice Policy Institute in 2004. In Maryland, treatment costs the government about $4,000 per inmate annually, while incarceration costs the government at least $20,000 per client annually. Multiply that $16,000 saved per client by the millions of people incarcerated in the United States today, and it’s clear that mandatory treatment instead of incarceration would immediately save the government billions of dollars every year.

Additionally, drug treatment programs outside of prison seem to yield long-term cost benefits. In 2004, the Justice Policy Institute found that for every dollar spent on drug treatment programs outside of prison, the government yields $8.87 in profit; treatment combined with incarceration yields at least $1.91 for every dollar spent. Economically, the benefits of treatment instead of incarceration are undeniable.

“For every dollar of treatment the government spends, it pays back to society,” said Dr. Gerald Stahler, the professor of my Drugs in Urban Society class. “It’s in society’s best interest to invest more upfront in treatment and prevention, because incarceration just has so many negative side effects.”

Rehabilitation and treatment for drug offenders are not only better for the economy, but they are also better for the offenders themselves. In prison, mental illnesses and drug addictions are rarely treated effectively. According to a 2014 article published in the Inquirer, about 356,268 people in Pennsylvania with severe mental illnesses are incarcerated – and about 60 percent of them also struggle with substance abuse, according to The New York Times – that’s 10 times the amount receiving treatment in state hospitals.

“The experience of being locked up — which often involves dangerous overcrowding and inconsistent or inadequate health care — exacerbates [mental illness and substance abuse] problems, or creates new ones,” wrote the editoral board. “The collapse of institutional psychiatric care and the surge of punitive drug laws have sent millions of people to prison, where they rarely if ever get the care they need.”

If prisoners with substance-abuse problems received more comprehensive treatment while incarcerated, perhaps their return rates would not be so high.

A 2009 study conducted by the National Institute of Justice in Brooklyn, New York stated that out of 272 people who received long-term treatment for their drug offenses, 12 were rearrested while undergoing treatment. Out of 215 similar offenders that were incarcerated, 28 were rearrested. In comparison, in other places, the return rate of prisoners for these offenses are much higher.

According to the Institute on Drug Abuse, drug dependence is now classified as a legitimate illness by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the resource of diagnostic criteria for all mental disorders. A patient with schizophrenia would never be incarcerated instead of offered treatment.

Before being stripped of their rights and clothed in uniform jumpsuits, those struggling with addiction deserve the proper treatment for their illness.

Michaela Winberg can be reached at


  1. How about neither? I fail to see how the state mandating treatment for those that the state deems “undesirable” in behavior is any more just than incarceration. Drug use is an individual choice that shouldn’t have the state ameliorating any freedoms, whether it be locking you in a cage or requiring you to enter a program you may not desire, to combat. These are adults, treat them that way and do not coerce them. What would be the penalty if they refused to enter these treatment programs?

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