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Recommendations To Treat Drug Abusers, Save Money and Reduce Crime

Armen Hareyan's picture

Public health solution to crime

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health, today released a landmark scientific report showing that effective treatment of drug abuse and addiction can save communities money and reduce crime. Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations outlines some of the proven components for successful treatment of drug abusers who have entered the criminal justice system, leading to lower rates of drug abuse and criminal activity.

"This report is part of our ongoing commitment to using scientific research to provide solutions to some of the most complex public health and safety issues of our time," said Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, NIH Director. "Not only does it offer research-based treatment solutions to judges and communities, it also provides information on how the criminal justice system can help reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases among drug abusing offenders--all critically important issues in today's society."

Untreated substance abuse adds significant costs to communities, including violent and property crimes, prison expenses, court and criminal costs, emergency room visits, child abuse and neglect, lost child support, foster care and welfare costs, reduced productivity, unemployment, and victimization. The cost to society of drug abuse in the year 2002 was $181 billion--$107 billion associated with drug-related crime.

"We know what works to treat addiction, based on our scientific knowledge of the cognitive, behavioral, and physiological characteristics of addicts," said Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director. "The principles of drug abuse treatment that we are releasing today represent the translation of research into practice. They are powerful and practical tools that will allow communities to choose between ongoing treatment or ongoing crime."

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Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations offers 13 principles based on a review of the scientific literature on drug abuse treatment and criminal behavior. The principles include an acknowledgement that drug addiction is a brain disease that affects behavior; that recovery requires effective individualized treatment that might include medication; and that continuity of care is essential for drug abusers re-entering the community after a period of incarceration.

"Detox alone in jail or prison is not treatment," said Dr. Volkow. "Without proven treatment and therapeutic followup in a community setting, addicted offenders are at a high risk of relapse despite a long period of forced sobriety," she added. "These principles also apply to court-mandated treatment interventions that replace incarceration with community programs."

It is estimated that 70 percent of individuals in state prisons and local jails have abused drugs regularly, compared with approximately 9 percent of the general population. Studies show that treatment cuts drug abuse in half, reduces criminal activity up to 80 percent, and reduces arrests up to 64 percent. However, fewer than one-fifth of these offenders receive treatment. Treatment not only lowers recidivism rates, it is also cost-effective. It is estimated that for every dollar spent on addiction treatment programs, there is a $4 to $7 reduction in the cost of drug-related crimes. With some outpatient programs, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12 to 1.

The failure to treat addicts in the criminal justice system contributes to a continuous cycle of substance abuse and crime. In 1999, 1.5 million minor children--most under the age of 10--had a parent in prison. Fifty-eight percent of these imprisoned parents used drugs in the month before their offense. Children of addicted parents are four times more likely to become addicted if they choose to use drugs or alcohol, and many will also enter the criminal justice system.

In addition to outlining treatment principles for criminal justice populations, NIDA's publication includes answers to frequently asked questions about addiction as a chronic disease, co-occurring mental, emotional and environmental conditions that make relapse likely upon return to society, recommendations for the components of adequate treatment programs, cost-effectiveness of treatment, and the role of medication in treating offenders with substance abuse.