Strict drug sentencing has proven to be a waste, it's time we take a different approach.

Prison is no place to fight a drug addiction. It’s time we embrace prevention and rehabilitation over incarceration to save money and lives.

The number of people incarcerated for drug and alcohol abuse is astounding. Over half of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses and 65 percent of inmates meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction. With statistics like these, it’s clear that it’s time for us to stop incarcerating drug users.

Why so many people are incarcerated for drug use

In 1971, President Nixon declared a “War On Drugs.” He significantly increased federal drug control agencies, created mandatory sentencing for drug-related crimes and labeled marijuana as a Schedule One drug — the highest possible category.

Drugs were increasingly criminalized as policies turned toward policing and punishment rather than prevention. Along these lines, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, which established harsh mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses.

Coverage of drug use and its wider effects became increasingly prevalent in media and public concern over drug addiction spiked. In 1985, only two-to-six percent of Americans polled said that drug abuse was the nation’s “number one problem.” In 1989, that number became 64 percent. During this time, laws were enacted to further criminalize drug use and enforce prison time for drug offenses.

The number of people in prison for nonviolent drug law offenses went from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.

The problem with locking people up for drug use

The United States not only has more people in prison than any country in the world, but recidivism rates are estimated to be as high as 67.8 percent. This means that over two thirds of released prisoners return to prison within three years.

In 2008, a World Health Organization survey showed that despite the high levels of incarceration for drug use, the United States still has the highest level of illegal drug use in the world. This survey also explained that countries with more liberal drug policies than the United States do not have higher levels of drug use, indicating the ineffectiveness of strict drug sentencing.

Other studies have showed that the incarceration of people for drug use is biased against African Americans. Between 1994 and 2002, the average time served by African Americans for a drug offense increased by 73 percent, compared to an increase of 28 percent for white drug offenders. African Americans now serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (57.2 months) as whites do for a violent offense (58.8 months).

Why treatment could work better

In 2000, Portugal had a serious drug problem – one percent of the population was addicted to heroin. After unsuccessfully locking drug users in prison for years, Portugal finally decriminalized all drugs. Rather than incarcerating drug users, Portugal mandated treatment for drug users. The country saw drug use decline by 50 percent.

Addiction treatment involves a combination of drug rehabilitation centers and specialized drug courts – programs that put drug users through classes, counseling and regular tests.

"Mandating these programs is likely to increase the success rate of these programs in eliminating addiction."

While drug rehabilitation centers have various degrees of success, this is often due to how many people drop out of the program early. Mandating these programs is likely to increase the success rate of these programs in eliminating addiction.

Drug courts, on the other hand, already show a high rate of success because participants face consequences for dropping out and therefore are likelier to stay until the end. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 75 percent of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program.

Mandating treatment over incarceration would save taxpayers huge amounts of money. Nationwide, for every dollar invested in Drug Court, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone.

Our take

Putting a drug user behind bars does nothing to fight the addictions they face. Only by mandating drug rehabilitation and other treatment can we fight the problems with drug and alcohol addiction in this country. By decreasing the amount of drug users in prison, we can save taxpayer money and fight the larger issue of mass incarceration.

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Posted 03.18.2016 - 04:33 pm EDT