What is a “Drug Offender”?

I have written before about Governor Chris Christie’s promising effort to move drug-addicted criminal offenders from prison to treatment. He is moving forward, with strong support from some Democratic State Legislators.

A group of us appointed to advise the effort had a great meeting at the Trenton State House a few months back. One of the things I said in my prepared remarks is that many people have some misunderstandings of what it means to send “drug offenders” to treatment rather than prison. Let me put some meat on the bones.

(1) Although plenty of drug addicted people are sent to prison for drug crimes (dealing being the most common, simple possession being incredibly rare), that doesn’t mean that all drug offenders should receive addiction treatment. Depending on the state in which you live, somewhere between a third to a half of incarcerated “drug offenders” don’t have a drug problem. They are called “drug offenders” not because of their drug use, but because they were arrested for being a drug dealer, mule, lookout etc. Jon Caulkins and I have argued that there may be a case for shortening the sentences of low-level players in the drug trade, but that’s a separate issue from whether they should receive addiction treatment: They shouldn’t, there’s nothing to treat.

(2) In contrast a huge number of “non drug-offenders” could benefit from drug treatment. Many addicts end up in prison because of convictions for non-drug crimes (e.g., robberies, burglaries, muggings). So if you are setting up a “drug treatment instead of prison” initiative, you should consider your “non-drug offender” population a target-rich environment.

(3) Finally, the drug that results in the most incarceration is alcohol, but people sometimes forget about this when they craft “drug” treatment initiatives. Prisons are full of alcoholic offenders who have been convicted of everything from check kiting to murder. An addiction treatment initiative that confines itself to users of the illegal drugs will therefore have less impact on public health and safety than would one that addressed alcohol as well.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.