Addiction Treatment Instead of Jail Time is Starting to Spread
Throughout the United States, from Arizona to the East Coast, opioid use has evolved from a “problem” to an “epidemic” in recent years. In 2014, more than 14,000 Americans fatally overdosed on prescription opioids. Closer to home, Maricopa County saw over 3,000 overdoses between June 2017 and January 2018.
Nationwide, a staggering number of people are behind bars for various drug-related offenses – more than 150,000. And the number of incarcerated individuals charged with simple possession far outnumber those charged with distribution or manufacture, at a rate of about 4:1.
These sobering numbers are prompting many states to alter the way drug possession laws are enforced. Addiction treatment instead of jail time is increasingly being looked at as a smart alternative for individuals charged with non-violent drug possession and who may also be struggling with addiction.
Portugal: A Working Model of Decriminalization
For a real-life example of the myriad benefits of treatment over incarceration, one only needs to take a look at Portugal. The European country, population 10 million, decriminalized non-violent drug possession in small amounts across the board in 2001, advocating treatment for addicts or those at high risk of drug addiction.
When caught with a less-than-10-day supply of an illicit drug, citizens of Portugal are typically ordered to perform community service or pay a fine. If an individual is identified as an addict by legal and psychological professionals, who serve on “dissuasion panels,” he or she is typically required to enter a treatment program.
Portugal’s bold move has paid off, both from an economic and human services standpoint. As of 2012, the number of overdose deaths throughout the country is one-fifth that of the average rate within the European Union.
While the U.S. may not be able to completely follow Portugal’s lead, legislators across Arizona can integrate similar treatment programs into their current system. In fact, the Grand Canyon State has long been a trendsetter when it comes to legislative changes and alternative sentencing for substance addicted individuals.
Treatment Versus Incarceration in Arizona
In the late 1990s, Arizona became the first state to forego the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders in favor of treatment. The program was deemed a financial success from the start, saving the state an estimated $2.5 million in its first year of implementation.
More recently, legal professionals in Pima County have taken notice of the benefits of treatment over jail time. After a successful implementation of their Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which resulted in a 90 percent decrease of Tucson’s juvenile detention population, a similar program for adult offenders was put in place.
The County Attorney’s Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) program is designed to provide rehabilitation in the form of addiction treatment to individuals addicted to illicit drugs. First implemented in 2013, DTAP remains the only program of its kind in Arizona.
Despite the success of DTAP, some Arizona lawmakers still favor jail time in drug possession cases, especially when opioids are involved. The recently proposed House Bill 2241 seeks to impose mandatory minimum sentences on individuals who manufacture or transport opioids, including heroin and fentanyl. While proponents are touting the bill as a solution to the national opioid epidemic, opponents of HB 2241 believe that the bill leaves a large grey area when it comes to distinguishing personal possession from the intent to sell.
Looking to the Future of Addiction Treatment
More and more Americans are looking for a better way to handle both the opioid epidemic and the national rate of incarceration. Individuals who believe they may be addicted to illicit drugs can opt to seek help even before law enforcement gets involved, however.
Treating an individual’s drug addiction rather than focusing on the crime of possession provides numerous benefits to the addict, their family, and society at large, according to a number of law enforcement and mental health professionals. Treatment is emerging as a viable solution to drug abuse, and individuals seeking help can find a variety of treatment options, in both inpatient and outpatient facilities.