Last updated on: 10/5/2007 | Author:

Should Incarceration Be Substituted with Treatment for Drug Offenders?

PRO (yes)


The New York Civil Liberties Union, a branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a 2001-2002 legislative memo titled “Rockefeller Drug Laws,” posted on its website, that:

“If harsh sanctions could win the drug war, then the war would be over in New York. Instead, the percentage of inmates incarcerated for drug offenses has increased dramatically from about 11% in 1980 to over 44% in 1999, and the annual cost of incarcerating these offenders is estimated at over $710 million. Our law enforcement and justice systems, too, are heavily burdened with low-level drug offenders.

Treatment… is increasingly regarded as a more effective, and much more cost effective, way to curb drug abuse. As science continues to advance our understanding of the physiology of addiction, treatment methods will almost certainly increase in effectiveness. Treatment on demand and education is a front on which we can wage a successful campaign to combat the misuse of drugs. As long as the punitive, and ineffective, provisions of the Rockefeller drug laws stand between individuals and meaningful treatment, the illegal drug trade will continue to flourish.”



Join Together, a drug policy project of Boston University’s School of Public Health, wrote the following position in its Feb. 1996 report, “Fixing a Failing System,” published on the project’s website:

“The criminal justice system is failing us… It insists that we need to lock up drug offenders and throw away the keys, but it neglects to tell us that those offenders will return to our streets, still using, still dealing. It pushes prison as a cure, when the truth is that merely locking someone up rarely ends addiction.

We must stop pushing low-level, nonviolent substance abusers through a revolving door of ineffective punishment. Sanctions and sentences for low-level, non-violent substance abusers must focus on treatment and rehabilitation as well as deterrence and separation. The system must serve to break the cycle of substance abuse, not merely interrupt it.”

Feb. 1996


Phillip Beatty, PhD, Project Officer for the National Institute for Disability & Rehabilitation Research, Barry Holman, Senior Associate of Research and Quality Assurance of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services for Washington, DC, and Vincent Schiraldi, Director of Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services, wrote the 2000 Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice report “Poor Prescription: The Costs of Imprisoning Drug Offenders in the United States,” which stated:

“Nearly one in four persons (23.7%) imprisoned in the United States is currently imprisoned for a drug offense. The number of persons behind bars for drug offenses (458,131) is roughly the same as the entire prison and jail population in 1980 (474,368). There are 100,000 more persons imprisoned in America for drug offenses than all prisoners in the European Union, even though the EU has 100 million more citizens than the US. The cost of incarcerating over 458,000 prisoners for drug offenses now exceeds $9 billion annually…

The country is going through a period of unprecedented prosperity, but not all of America’s citizens are sharing in that prosperity. A population approximately the size of the District of Columbia is currently incarcerated for drug offenses, many of whom are nonviolent, many of whom could be addressed more effectively through diversion into treatment rather than costly and debilitating incarceration.”



Doug McVay, Director of Research at Common Sense for Drug Policy, and Vincent Schiraldi, Director of Youth Rehabilitation Services for Washington DC, et al., wrote the following information in their Jan. 2004 report “Treatment or Incarceration?,” published by the Justice Policy Institute, available on the organization’s website:

“Imprisoning drug offenders may resonate with some who think prison is the only way to make their communities safer, at least while they are incarcerated. Yet, the overwhelming majority of drug prisoners will come back out eventually to rejoin society, many within just a few years or even months… Most drug prisoners will return to the community after a couple of years away, and will then return to prison because we have not dealt with the complex set of core issues that led to them ending up incarcerated in the first place. Though the time behind bars spent is limited, the impact of a felony conviction may last a lifetime, and even a short period of incarceration has been shown to affect people’s earnings and ability to get a job, to be parents, and to become productive parts of their communities…

Along with reduced drug addiction and recidivism, many treatment programs are community builders, helping people facing severe challenges become productive parts of their families and neighborhoods.”

Jan. 2004

CON (no)


Rachel Hutzel, JD, Warren County, OH prosecutor, wrote the following position in her June 23, 2009 opinion piece titled “Many Drug Offenders Need Punishment, Not Just Treatment,” published by Dayton Daily News:

“In my office, approximately one in five felonies is a drug possession or drug trafficking charge… Many thefts are committed to get drug money. The majority of traffic-related deaths are drug or alcohol-related. And personal crimes such as child endangering and domestic violence are usually fueled by drugs or alcohol… Many of those charged with possession receive treatment at the expense of the county.

Treatment, without punishment, is unfair to victims of drug-motivated crimes… Further, treatment is ineffective to deal with dealers… who profit enormously from the addiction of others… Many drug crimes should continue to be dealt with harshly. The people who are harmed by the selfish, destructive acts of drug users and drug dealers deserve nothing less.”

June 23, 2009


Jeffrey A. Eisenach, PhD, Managing Director and Principal of Navigant Economics, and Andrew J. Cowin, JD, Chairman of the Yankee Institute, wrote the following information in their May 17, 1991 article “The Case Against More Funds for Drug Treatment,” published on the Heritage Foundation’s website:

“Subsidies for drug treatment are by far the fastest-growing major component of federal spending on drug abuse… Despite this explosive growth in spending, there is actually little evidence that drug treatment, federally subsidized or otherwise, ever can be more than a Band-Aid on America’s drug crisis. To the contrary, the evidence shows that treatment programs generally fail to get and keep people off drugs. The evidence available on federally-subsidized treatment programs, moreover, suggests that they are often poorly run, fail to follow standard treatment practices, and function as ‘revolving doors’ for addicts seeking respite from the criminal justice system or other problems…

[W]hile drug treatment may help a small number of Americans to end their dependence on drugs, it cannot stop others from following them down the same path. By contrast, a greater emphasis on law enforcement, prevention and education approaches would deter drug use before it started or encourage people to stop drug abuse before reaching its final, terribly destructive stages.”

May 17, 1991


The Office of the Inspector General for the State of California published the following information in its Feb. 21, 2007 press release “The State’s Substance Abuse Treatment Programs for Inmates Do Not Reduce Recidivism, Yet Cost the State $143 Million Per Year”:

“California has spent more than $1 billion since 1989 to provide substance abuse treatment to California inmates and parolees in an effort to reduce the state’s high recidivism rate – but the programs have had no effect on recidivism, and in that regard, appear to represent a complete waste of money…

[N]umerous university studies of the state’s in-prison substance abuse programs conducted over the past nine years consistently show no difference in recidivism rates between inmates who participated in the programs and those who received no substance abuse treatment. One five-year University of California, Los Angeles, study of the state’s two largest in-prison programs found, in fact, that the 12-month recidivism rates for inmates who received in-prison treatment was slightly higher than that of a control group.”

Feb. 21, 2007


Charles Hobson, JD, Attorney for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, wrote the following position in a July 2000 article titled “An Analysis of Proposition 36: The Drug Treatment Diversion Initiative,” published on the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation’s website,

“Although diversion of low-level offenders to drug treatment programs can be beneficial, this virtual decriminalization of drug possession and personal use does more harm than good. This proposition [California Prop. 36] is based upon a flawed interpretation of prior drug treatment efforts…

The current system allows for diversion but vests considerable discretion in the court to determine whether the accused should be diverted… The Initiative replaces this carefully guided discretion with a system of mandatory diversion with few minimal eligibility requirements. This is a serious mistake… Many drug offenders pose a real threat to public safety…

This inflexibility is wasteful as well as dangerous. Not all drug offenders are amenable to treatment. Yet the Initiative would place all offenders in treatment, even if the shock of prison may be a better therapeutic alternative, or more appropriate punishment. Placing people in therapy they do not deserve wastes resources.”

July 2000