Adult Diversion: Addiction, Alcoholism, and Crime

Substance abuse is a national epidemic.  Not only is addiction harmful to the abuser, it also can cause harm for those who come into contact with the addict. Needless to say, it also adds a massive burden to our already over-taxed legal system. Many alleged crimes in Washington, DC, and throughout the country, are actually the result of behavior directly attributable to the effects of drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two. Many issues that result in criminal charges are, rather, acts of pure desperation as those who suffer from addiction and who struggle to secure the means to afford or obtain more drugs or alcohol. It is widely recognized that many crime statistics — including those for DUI, theft, burglary, assault, and homicide, to name a few — would drastically decrease if drug and alcohol addiction were treated as a medical issue and recognized illness.

Drug offenses — such as possession, sale, manufacture, and distribution — range from misdemeanor to felony charges and can lead to serious, lifelong consequences. Costly fines and incarceration are often levied against those convicted of drug or drug-related offenses as a means of punishment for each specific offense.  This punishment, however, does nothing to help the offender reform. Without adequate treatment for the underlying addiction, recidivism rates remain high.

What makes this particularly frustrating, and pointless, is the fact that there are avenues of education, therapy, and rehabilitation which may be court-sanctioned and ordered.  Attempts have been made in many jurisdictions to help offenders seek treatment for their addiction by working to determine the root of their addiction.  In many cases, treatment may be ordered in lieu of jail time to help prevent future offenses rather than just punish the individual for the current alleged offense. Not only does this prove successful in ensuring that the individual is able to lead a productive life, it is also, on average, far more cost-effective than incarceration.

Substance Abuse Statistics and Trends

Across the nation, prescription drug abuse in on the rise and the number of prescription drug-related deaths now outnumbers the cases of cocaine and heroin overdose deaths combined.  In Washington, DC and 29 states, prescription drug-related deaths took more lives than fatal car accidents in 2013.  In the United States, it is estimated that approximately 50 people die from a prescription drug overdose each day. Another six million people are trapped in the ongoing battle against prescription drug addiction.

Illicit drugs, prescription drugs, and alcohol can take root in people’s lives and eventually destroy the health, relationships, and opportunities of addicts.  The annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSUDH) Report, published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), estimates that nearly 11 million full-time workers in the U.S. abuse alcohol and/or drugs.  SAMHSA estimates a paltry 10 percent of those suffering from substance abuse illness actually receive the appropriate treatment for their disorders.

SAMHSA provides grants to encourage courts to provide mandated treatment options for those convicted of drug offenses and drug- or alcohol-related crimes.  Treating the problem and helping offenders to rehabilitate and heal can significantly reduce the likelihood of substance abuse relapse and associated recidivism.

Drug Use and Arrests

The nation’s capital suffers from one of the highest substance abuse rates in the United States.  One survey by The Media Awareness Project, an advocacy group dedicated to drug policy reformed, estimates that one-in-ten Washington, DC residents are dependent on alcohol and that roughly 60,000 people in the District of Columbia grapple with either alcohol- or drug-addiction. You will find more about their survey here.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., (NCADD), drug- and alcohol-related offenses generally fall into one of three categories:

Alcohol- and Drug-Defined

  • Possession
  • Use
  • Production/Cultivation
  • Distribution/Sale

Alcohol- and Drug-Related

  • DUI/DWI
  • Theft (to purchase drugs)
  • Assault

Alcohol- and Drug-Lifestyle

  • Certain lifestyle/skills learned through relationships formed via drug use

The FBI reported in 2009, approximately 1.7 million arrests were made for alleged drug abuse violations, while the U.S. Department of Justice reported that more than one-third of those who suffered convictions admitted to drinking at the time of the alleged offense. Additional reports indicate that nearly half to 80 percent of all the people who find themselves convicted and sentenced to jail and prison are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.

Court-Mandated Substance Abuse Programs

Without effective rehabilitation and treatment for addiction, it is estimated that all but five percent of those who are convicted in the U.S. will return to their drug and alcohol habits and return to incarceration, thus creating a vicious cycle. This is perhaps the single strongest indicator that focusing merely on punishment for drug and alcohol-related offenses is a grossly ineffective strategy when trying to prevent future offenses.

Drug diversion programs are powerful alternatives to jail or prison for those who have been accused of criminal behavior and who have substance abuse or mental health issues at the root of their alleged offenses. That is because drug diversion programs are focused on treating the root issues, focusing on substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, community service, and other court-ordered programs, to break the cycle and allow the individual to live as a healthy, happy, and productive citizen. This not only benefits the individual, but everyone within their community.

Evidence also indicates that diversion programs overseen by the court to maintain accountability, and which require a certain level of performance and completion within the program, are more effective than those programs which are unsupervised and require no specific outcome goals.  Helping to treat the drug problem at its most basic level can help former offenders get securely back on their feet to avoid falling back into old habits and unhealthy and risky lifestyles. By adopting this approach, the justice system can ensure that the offenses are effectively addressed and that justice is served for all those involved.