Rehab over Incarceration: What Really Works

While it may seem obvious that people struggling with drug addiction would benefit from rehab, rather than simply being imprisoned, the fact is most states incarcerate people without offering effective addiction treatment. Approximately 50 percent of state prisoners have been diagnosed with drug abuse or dependence, but only 10 percent receive medically based drug treatment.1

Once people are released from prison, if they haven’t had treatment for their addiction, they’re typically left with little or no resources: nowhere to live, no way to earn a living and they carry the stigmas associated with being ex-offenders. It’s no wonder so many return to drugs or alcohol to alleviate the helplessness and hopelessness, leading them to re-offend, when the choice of rehab over incarceration could have benefited them greatly.

Rehab: Saving People

Effective treatment can help people already imprisoned. Research shows that treatment started in the criminal justice system, and continued upon a person’s release, leads to long-lasting drops in criminal activity and drug abuse. One important part of treatment that showed promise is medication-assisted treatment like methadone for prisoners with heroin addictions.

Effective treatment also helps people who’ve been arrested or convicted of a crime, but as alternatives to prison, they are diverted into rehab programs. Courts that promote drug treatment help offenders into recovery. It also creates positive economic benefits, including allowing offenders to work and earn money, as well as avoiding prison and future crime costs.

Rehab: Saving Money

A study published by the National Drug Intelligence Center reported that drug abuse cost the U.S. about $193 billion in 2007. Included in this figure is $113 billion spent on costs due to drug-related crime and the associated criminal justice system expenses. By comparison, the costs to treat drug abuse were estimated to be about $14 billion, a small amount when compared to drug abuse crime costs.2

Instead of jailing offenders with drug abuse problems, using the rehab approach saves money. Approximately $2-6 was saved for every $1 spent. Some of these savings were due to less criminal behavior and re-incarceration.

Choosing Rehab over Incarceration

It makes sense for communities to choose rehab over incarceration for both humane reasons and economic benefits. More states are getting on board by expanding drug courts and funding for addiction treatment programs. In 2016, the Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Abuse was formed in North Carolina. The task force coordinates different state agencies, the court system and advocacy groups. The goal is to create plans for providing the most effective and efficient mental health and addiction rehab to those with addiction problems, diverting them from prison into treatment.3

As these positive trends continue, more progress might be made into giving people the helping hand they need to become and remain sober, enabling them to live healthy, productive and rewarding lives in society.


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