The Recovery Diaries: Treatment for Substance Abuse Now Favored Over Punishment

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For drug or alcohol abusers who get cleaned up, success builds on success.

Those who successfully complete treatment programs do better the longer they manage to stay clean, a study cited by the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse found. About 4 million people went into treatment for drug or alcohol addiction in 2013, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports.

Two-thirds of those who manage to stay sober for one to three years will make it another year. Of those who make it five years, 86 percent make it another year.

Some of those stories of struggle and success are featured in “The Recovery Diaries,” a new short film produced by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

But a life clean and sober can be harder to navigate — especially if his or her background includes an appearance before a judge.

“If I were just jumping into the workforce, I may not want my employer to know that I’m in recovery,” says Neil Campbell, executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, in the film.

“We’ve criminalized addiction in this country to a point where an employer may hesitate to hire someone if they know they’ve had trouble in the past,” she says. “I think all of those things keep people from the treatment door.”

Public opinion has shifted dramatically since the days of the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Two-thirds of respondents now think government should devote more attention to getting drug addicts into treatment than locking them up, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center. A similar percentage supports rolling back the tough mandatory minimum sentences that have packed prisons in previous decades.

Public policy has been slower to follow suit. While the Obama administration has told federal prosecutors to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, 55 percent of the $27 billion federal anti-drug budget proposal for 2016 is still focused on busting suppliers and users.

On the state level, 40 states have eased at least some drug laws in the past five years, Pew reported — in part because of the cost of keeping drug offenders behind bars.

About 20 percent of the 1.6 million inmates behind bars in the United States are in for nonviolent drug offenses; in the federal prisons alone, the number tops 50 percent.

Of the 48,000 juveniles committed by courts to residential facilities — everything from group homes to adult-style lockups — in 2010, about 2,900 were in for drug offenses, according to a February report by the National Center for Juvenile Justice. In 2014, the Justice Policy Institute estimated the long-term costs of housing teen offenders at about $8 billion to $21 billion yearly.

So finding another way to handle drug cases could substantially reduce the roughly $80 billion a year the nation spent on corrections in 2010. And treatment could play a major role.

California has tried to take that approach in the last decade and a half. In 2000, state voters passed Proposition 36, which allowed adults convicted of nonviolent drug offenses to get probation with treatment instead of being locked up.

About 40,000 drug suspects a year went through drug treatment under Proposition 36, said Darren Urada, the University of California-Los Angeles researcher who led annual studies of the program. About half were in treatment for the first time.

Most received probation; about 43 percent of those completed the program. And of those who completed treatment, just under 18 percent had used drugs a year after their initial offense — about half the rate of those who didn’t go through the program.

“Not all of them would have gone to prison, but a substantial portion of them would have,” Urada said. “So it did save a lot of money and it kept them out of prison or jail, which is good in a lot of other ways.”

Urada said he would recommend similar programs to other states, but added, “I would do things a little differently.”

For one thing, the California program struggled financially from the outset, “because they got people who had much more serious drug problems than they expected.”

“They were expecting at the beginning that this would be college students who used marijuana every once in a while, things like that,” he said. “What they got was people who had been using methamphetamine for 10 years, who had serious, serious problems that were far, far more than they had budgeted for.”

And after the financial crisis of 2008, with California facing massive budget gaps, lawmakers cut off funding for Proposition 36. Some counties still support treatment centers on their own, and offenders can pay for programs themselves, but space is limited in most other counties, said Laura Thomas, deputy director of the California arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, which helped write and lobbied for the measure.

“We want to think that as a state, as taxpayers, we’re getting the most for our money — especially when it combines something that’s actually helping people’s lives,” she said. “But unfortunately, the state Legislature, in times of budget crisis, didn’t see it that way.”

The UCLA studies showed Proposition 36 saved about $2 in prison costs for every dollar spent on the program. California voters followed up in 2014 with the passage of Proposition 47, which reduced most drug possession charges to misdemeanors rather than a felonies. It also allowed people convicted of those offenses to get their charges reduced retroactively — a step Thomas said can help inmates once they’re released.

“If you’ve got a felony conviction on your record, that creates barriers to accessing public housing, in some places, food stamps [or] jobs,” she said. “All the things that help people in recovery and help people build stability are that much harder to get if you end up with a felony conviction as a result of your drug use.”

This is the beginning of a year of coverage around the subject of young people and substance abuse, including prevention, early intervention and recovery. It comes thanks to a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

4 thoughts on “The Recovery Diaries: Treatment for Substance Abuse Now Favored Over Punishment

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  4. Having been working in the prison system for over 10 years, I can tell you first hand that we need more than the current Proposition 47. I agree that people with addiction are better served in rehab than prison – which is not rehab in CA, but what is really going on is that psychologists such as myself who had been trying to work on mental health/addictive disorders AND helping our patients find a recovery placement after they parole have had out feet kicked from under us. They are now just coming in for a “minute” and leaving – going usually to the streets and relapsing within days. I have been promoting rehb instead of prison just as much as mental health hospitals for non-criminal (TY Ronald Reagen) and was initially excited about prop 47 until I read it and understood what it was going to do; which is exactly what it has done. Not only are we still locking up people with addiction we are cycling them in and out of the system faster and both factors will cost taxpayers and society much more over time.
    We need change but we are not there yet! DB