Rehab or Prison?

by Kristin Mitchell

The United States has a drug problem. There’s no denying it. About 6.8 million people in the U.S. are drug users. There are over two million prisoners in America’s prison system, and about one-fourth of them were convicted for a drug offense. We send more people to prison for drug charges than any other country in the world (Natarajan et al. 1). Out-of-prison rehabilitation and treatment for drug offenders provides better results than imprisonment. It is more cost-effective, reduces recidivism rates, and helps users control their addiction in healthy ways, allowing them to lead more productive lives and stay out of jail.

One of the many benefits of out-of-prison rehabilitation and treatment is that it is much more cost-effective than incarceration. According to the Minnesota House of Representatives, it costs approximately $32,700 of taxpayer money every year for each inmate in our state’s prison system. There are around 9,000 inmates in the prison system in Minnesota. So let’s do the math. These figures add up to about $294,300,000 each year, just in one state! This is our hard-earned tax money paying to keep these offenders in jail.

Providing treatment outside of jail is more cost-effective. It costs about $2,000 to $7,000 per person (Natarajan et al. 14). Drug treatment inside jail or prison costs $24 more per day than basic costs of incarceration. The Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) program is being used in Brooklyn, New York (McVay, Schiraldi and Ziedenberg 5). The average cost of putting someone in the program is $32,974, compared to the $64,338 needed to send him or her to prison for 25 months, or the average prison sentence for drug offenders. This program cuts the cost to the community by half! Drug treatment in prison provides a benefit of about $1.91-$2.69 per dollar spent on the program, compared to an out-of-prison program, which has a benefit of about $8.87 for every dollar spent (McVay, Schiraldi, and Ziedenberg 6). This benefits the community by freeing funding for other programs.

Rehab produces lower recidivism rates than prison. Intensive supervised treatment programs have been shown to reduce recidivism by 16.7%, as opposed to only 4.5% and 5.7% from treatment programs completed in jail and prison, respectively (Natarajan et al. 12). According to McVay, Schiraldi, and Ziedenberg, participants in Brooklyn’s DTAP program have been found 67% less likely to return to prison than a group leaving prison without completing any similar program (9). A federal report called the National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study (NTIES) showed that after completing a treatment program, the percentage of offenders arrested for drug charges went down by 51%, overall arrests declined by 64%, and 70-90% saw reductions in criminal behavior (10).

Most importantly, rehabilitation and treatment help solve the root problem: addiction. There are many different views surrounding addiction and what causes it ( According to the disease concept, addicts and alcoholics are genetically predisposed to addiction. Addiction and alcoholism are “chronic, progressive and fatal diseases.” Most 12-step programs believe this. The dual diagnosis theory comes from the psychiatric community and says that some addicts and alcoholics suffer from a mental illness that they treat by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. To them, alcoholism and addiction are not diseases themselves, but stem from another illness. From a religious standpoint, the addict will be “healed” if they pursue a relationship with a higher power of some sort. The element of pain is very important in understanding addiction and leads to a “downward spiral” effect. At some point in their life, most addicts begin to experience a substantial amount of pain that they can’t handle on their own. In order to deal with the pain, they turn to drugs or alcohol. The drug causes new pain, even though it provided relief in the past. The user needs to keep using, or else the original pain resurfaces. The only way to stop the cycle is with treatment, jail, or death.

Drug and alcohol addiction has many physical and psychological characteristics that make it extremely hard to stop using even though continued use may result in devastating consequences (NIDA). A successful treatment program should last for a substantial amount of time and teach addicts to abstain from drug use even after completion of their specific program. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be used to teach drug users new ways of thinking and acting in order to cease their old patterns of criminal behavior and drug abuse. This therapy can help the individual recognize the mistakes they have made regarding the way they judged their behavior in the past and help them to prevent these errors in the future. Every addict is different. Treatment programs, in order to provide the best outcomes, should be tailored to fit the individual and his or her attitudes and patterns of use. Drug use should be monitored throughout treatment in order to get an idea of how the treatment is working for the individual. If the user is not seeing the desired results, his or her plan should be altered to help him or her achieve the ultimate goal of sobriety. Treatment should continue until well after the user has returned to society, in order to help them deal with learning how to live a sober life and finding a positive support system to prevent relapse.

Incarceration can be detrimental to the recovery of an addict. Punishing relapses after treatment with jail time is actually harmful to the user’s sobriety (McVay, Schiraldi, and Ziedenberg 16). They are sent to jail and removed from their normal life and support system, which is an important part of recovery. More intensive treatment or more monitoring of drug use would be more effective in most cases. Addiction is not something that can be solved in a short time, and going to jail can reverse the positive effects that treatment has had on the user. It can be a huge setback in the journey to recovery.

Out-of-prison rehabilitation and treatment for drug offenders is more effective than imprisonment. It is more cost-effective, lowers recidivism rates, and helps get to the root of the problem of addiction. Rather than a vicious cycle, it’s a virtuous one: Treatment leads to fewer crimes being committed, which lowers the number of people incarcerated at any given time. Less money is spent on prison and jail, so more money can be used for treatment programs. Suffering from an addiction is punishment enough; sending addicts to jail is not the solution to the problem.

Works Cited

Drug Rehabilitation and Substance Abuse Treatment Referral. Drug and Alcohol Rehab Services, Feb. 2009. Web. 20 March 2010. <>.

McVay, Doug, Vincent Schiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg. Treatment or Incarceration?: National and State Findings on the Efficacy and Cost Savings of Drug Treatment Versus Imprisonment. Washington, D.C.: Justice Policy Institute, 2004. Web.

Minnesota House of Representatives. Minnesota Government in Brief – House Research. Minnesota House of Representatives, Jan. 2009. Web. 21 March 2010. <>.

Natarajan, Nila, et al. Substance Abuse Treatment and Public Safety. Washington, D.C.: Justice Policy Institute, 2008. Web.

“Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations.” NIDA. National Institutes of Health, 22 July 2009. Web. 21 March 2010. <>.


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