By Juleyka Lantigua-Williams
For the first time ever, a sitting U.S. surgeon general has declared substance abuse a public-health crisis. “It’s time to change how we view addiction,” Vivek Murthy said in a statement last week, which was accompanied by a lengthy report on the issue. “Not as a moral failing, but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency and compassion. The way we address this crisis is a test for America.”
Murthy’s statement is a major victory for those advocates who have long hoped addiction would be viewed through a physical- and mental-health lens. But this new approach—if it were to become widespread—could also profoundly impact the criminal-justice system, where addicts often end up.
Murthy’s report provides an update on drug and alcohol users in the country. According to its figures, in the last year alone, about 48 million Americans used or abused illegal or prescription drugs and 28 million drove under the influence. It also details how 21 million Americans currently suffer from addiction—or as the medical community refers to it, substance-use disorder. Currently, over 300,000 inmates sit in state and federal prisons for convictions related to drugs, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.* A recent study estimates that of the nation’s more than 2 million inmates, 65 percent “meet the criteria for substance-abuse addiction.”
These numbers have severe ramifications in the criminal-justice system. Scores of those Americans were among the 11 million admissions to local and county jails last year. Tens of thousands lost their driving privileges due to strict state guidelines against driving drunk. Millions served time, were put on probation, entered rehabilitation programs in exchange for reduced sentences, or became further entrenched in the justice system due to repeated violations.
Health professionals and recovery experts, including social psychologist and University of California, Irvine, criminologist Mona Lynch, agree that the criminal-justice system is not the place to treat addiction. According to Lynch, the existing system cannot deliver adequate services and that attempting to integrate health care into the criminal-justice system can lead to negative consequences. “We need to have the investment in public health and treatment programs,” said Lynch, who wrote a book on how federal drug laws are used, among other things, to coerce guilty pleas and secure long sentences. “The criminal-justice system is, of course, a really expensive way to deliver health care. The punitive side of it can be counterproductive, particularly for addicts.”