Incarceration or Treatment?


What Really Works For Our Loved Ones?

Did you know that 70 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons and local jails have abused drugs regularly, compared with 9 percent of the general population? Would you like a workable, common-sense alternative to paying an arm and a leg to incarcerate these individuals?

Here are some facts: Drug abuse is involved in more than half of all violent crimes and 70 percent of child abuse and neglect cases.

As an addictions therapist, I see what really works three nights a week in my substance abuse treatment groups. I saw what didn’t work for years as a counselor working in our penal institutions. Sorry folks, but the lock them up and throw away the key approach may feel good to say, but it just doesn’t work.  And, it’s expensive as hell. The estimated cost to society in 2002 was over 180 billion and over 105 billion was associated with drug-related crime.

Substance abuse treatment really does work, and the numbers don’t lie. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that substance abuse treatment cuts drug use in half and criminal activity by as much as 80 percent. Now this might not mean much if drug or alcohol abuse has never touched your life, or the life of a family member, but then again, you might have to be from another planet for this to be true.

Down here, drug and alcohol abuse ruins lives by fragmenting our most basic unit of society, the family. It causes physical, emotional and sexual trauma on a daily basis. 80 percent of the females who sit before this therapist have endured sexual trauma and the majority of this trauma incorporates drug and alcohol abuse. This is documented repeatedly by the assessment process.

If treatment is so successful, why have so many communities resisted offering comprehensive treatment programs?

Well, for one, addiction is still seen by many as a behavioral defect that requires the individual to take personal responsibility. In fact, it gives the addicted person the responsibility of seeking and maintaining their treatment just like it does for any other disease.

How is incarcerating an emotionally dysfunctional person going to cure their emotional dysfunction?

The essence of treatment addresses these issues and the inappropriate coping skill of drug and alcohol use. Yes, drug and alcohol abuse is a coping skill for those lacking the tools to cope appropriately. Those who have felt the pain of physical, emotional and sexual abuse can readily identify with these words.

Why are our judicial and legislative personnel so addicted to the concept of incarceration? The only thing that appears to make sense is their desire to be re-elected, and the lock them up mentality is simple and easy to communicate, playing on our emotions, rather that to our cognitive rationale. Do our judges and legislators know what works? The data is out there; that’s for sure.

Did you know that data shows that it is actually less expensive to provide comprehensive treatment than to let individuals sit in our prisons and jails? Every dollar invested in treatment yields a return of $4 to $7 dollars in reduced drug-related crimes.

Naturally, the ultimate goal of treatment is to reduce drug use on the part of the addict, thereby reducing the damage incurred by our populace at their expense. A disease is a disease. Imagine telling the diabetic that he is responsible for curing his own disease, without the help of a professional.

In the many years this clinician has been in this field, I’ve yet to see an addict who wanted to be addicted. I’ve yet to see an addict who expected that compulsive, uncontrollable or criminal behavior would ensue once they started to use.

I ask you to please call or write your senators and congressmen. Tell them in no uncertain terms how you feel about treatment over incarceration. It’s both your family and mine that bears the brunt of this societal ignorance. For more information, please contact the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

D.J. Diebold is a state licensed addictions therapist and can be reached at 480-650-1020 or at