The Relationship Between Addiction and the Criminal Justice System

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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 85% of people in prison have an active substance use disorder or a history of drug abuse. These people often end up in jail due to their drug-related activities or because they cannot afford treatment options for their addiction.

Unfortunately, jail time does not solve these underlying issues; instead, it can worsen them by creating further financial hardships or leading to more serious offenses due to an inability to access help for their addiction.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with substance use, Guardian Recovery can help. We will work with you to develop an individualized and effective program to help you recover from addiction and get you on the road to long-term recovery. We believe in the benefits of a full curriculum of clinical care, beginning with medical detoxification, transitioning into a higher level of treatment, and concluding with personalized aftercare planning. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment options in your area.

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Statistics & Rates of Substance Abuse of the Prison Population

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance abuse is alarmingly prevalent among incarcerated individuals in the United States. The 2019 Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that approximately 65% of people in U.S. prisons meet the criteria for substance use disorder (SUD). Still, only 11% received any form of treatment for their addiction.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) also reported that a large percentage of incarcerated individuals have a history of substance abuse, including these statistics from a 2017 report:

  • 58% of state prisoners and 63% of sentenced federal prisoners met the criteria for drug dependence or abuse.
  • 15% of state prisoners had used drugs at the time of the offense.
  • 25% of federal prisoners reported drug use the month before the offense.

What Is the Relationship Between Addiction & Crime?

The link between addiction and criminal behavior is complex. Research consistently indicates that substance abuse increases the likelihood of criminal involvement. Substance misuse can impair judgment, heighten impulsivity, and lead individuals to engage in illegal activities to sustain their addiction. Moreover, the cycle of addiction often causes criminal behavior, as individuals resort to illicit means to obtain drugs or funding for their substance abuse.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol commit around 50% of all crimes.

Do Changes to the Brain Caused by Drug Use Lead to Crime?

But the link between addiction and crime goes beyond just statistics. Drug use can alter the brain in ways that make criminal activities more likely. Drugs like cocaine, heroin, and alcohol can cause changes in the brain’s reward system, making it difficult for an individual to resist engaging in criminal activities. These drugs can also impair decision-making abilities, leading to impulsive or reckless behaviors that may result in illegal activity.

How Does the Criminal Justice System Handle Addiction-Related Offenses?

The criminal justice system has traditionally relied heavily on punitive measures to address addiction-related offenses. This approach, emphasizing incarceration rather than rehabilitation, has proven ineffective in breaking the cycle of addiction and reducing recidivism rates. Incarceration alone does not address the underlying issues fueling addiction, such as trauma, mental health disorders, or lack of access to treatment and support.

The criminal justice system’s approach when dealing with addiction-related offenses varies from state to state. In some states, drug offenders are sent to prison, while in others, they are diverted into treatment programs or community supervision. However, many of these programs lack adequate resources and support for those struggling with addiction. As a result, many of those struggling with an SUD end up in jail instead of getting the help they need.

Prisoners who struggle with addiction face unique challenges while incarcerated. For one thing, access to treatment is often limited or nonexistent in prisons and jails, making it difficult for inmates to get help for their addictions. They also may not have access to medication-assisted treatments (MATs) like methadone or buprenorphine that can help them manage their cravings and withdrawal symptoms while incarcerated.

  • Experts and policymakers have attempted to address these challenges by implementing various solutions such as:
  • Diversion programs that provide alternative sentencing options for drug offenders instead of prison time.
  • Increased access to medication-assisted treatments.
  • Improved mental health services.
  • Better education about substance abuse prevention and recovery options inside and outside prison walls.

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How Effective Are Punishment-Based Methods to Addiction in the Criminal Justice System?

Punishment-based methods, such as mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws, have been widely criticized for their limited effectiveness in treating addiction.

One of the main arguments in favor of punishment-based approaches is that they provide an incentive for people to stay away from drugs and alcohol. This may be true in some cases, but the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) highlights that incarceration without adequate treatment fails to address the root causes of addiction and does not equip individuals with the necessary tools for recovery. Alternative approaches are needed to provide comprehensive treatment and support to break the cycle of addiction and crime.

Non-punishment-based methods such as positive reinforcement and contingency management have proven more effective in treating substance use disorders. Positive reinforcement provides incentives for healthy behavior instead of punishing people for relapsing. Contingency management is an evidence-based approach that uses rewards and incentives to encourage positive behaviors associated with recovery from addiction. These approaches are based on the idea that providing rewards will motivate people to make better choices and stick with their recovery plan.

What Is the Role of Drug Courts in Addiction & Crime?

Drug courts are a type of court system designed to help individuals struggling with addiction and criminal behavior. They offer an alternative to incarceration, allowing those charged with a crime to receive long-term treatment and supervision instead of jail time. Drug courts provide a comprehensive approach to addressing substance abuse, combining judicial oversight, treatment services, and other community-based resources.

Drug courts aim to reduce recidivism by helping individuals break the cycle of addiction and criminal behavior. The court system closely monitors participants in drug court programs throughout their treatment process. Such programs usually include regular check-ins with probation officers, frequent drug testing, and participation in counseling sessions or other forms of therapy.

Drug courts also provide participants access to social services such as job training and housing assistance, helping them address any underlying issues contributing to their substance abuse or criminal behavior. Studies have shown that individuals who complete drug court programs are less likely to return to illegal activity than those who go through traditional sentencing methods such as jail time or probation alone.

Addiction Treatment in Correctional Facilities

Providing evidence-based addiction treatment within correctional facilities is crucial to breaking the cycle of addiction and crime. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that comprehensive treatment approaches, including MAT, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and counseling, have shown promising results in reducing substance use and criminal behavior among incarcerated individuals. Continuity of care post-release is equally critical to ensure a successful transition back into the community and reduce the risk of relapse.

According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, inmates who participated in substance abuse treatment programs were 28% less likely to be re-arrested within three years of their release than those who did not receive treatment. Additionally, research has found that inmates who received addiction treatment while incarcerated had lower rates of drug use and fewer arrests for drug-related offenses after their release.

Treatment can help individuals overcome their addictions and lead healthier lives outside of prison walls. It can also reduce crime rates and improve public safety by preventing people from returning to a life of crime once released from prison.

However, many prisons lack adequate resources for providing effective addiction treatment services, leaving inmates without access to the support they need to overcome their addictions and stay sober after being released.

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Substance use can lead to crime and prison time, but you can avoid that trap by getting help today. No matter the substance, the best way to overcome addiction is with the help of experienced, trusted professionals like those at Guardian Recovery. We provide comprehensive treatment, including medically-assisted detox, therapy, specialty programs, and reintegration support. Our caring and skilled administrative, medical, and clinical teams will guide you through every step of your recovery process from the first time you call. We provide a complimentary assessment and a free insurance benefits check and help coordinate local travel to our facility. All you have to do is ask; we will take care of the rest. Contact us today.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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