Congressional lawmakers and presidential candidates are currently debating criminal justice reform, offering to lessen the legal consequences for “non-violent drug offenders.” For most, the underlying motive is compassion for drug offenders, giving them the chance to avoid a criminal record. Yet such policy changes, recently made in California through the passage of Proposition 47 last November, demonstrate that these types of reforms may not be truly compassionate. Instead, fewer suffering from the disease of addiction are getting the help they need.
Current misleading charges that “mass incarceration” is largely a product of locking up petty drug offenders imagines that the courts operate primarily to punish, not to rehabilitate. Yet for those suffering from the disease of addiction, the criminal justice system has the authority and ability to provide a pathway to recovery in ways that their weary loved ones cannot.
For thousands of substance-dependent Americans, the power of the criminal justice system has been life-saving, providing a much-needed change in the trajectory of their disease. The data bear this out: The criminal justice system has traditionally been a leading source of referrals to get individuals into treatment. That’s why thousands of Americans in recovery from destructive addictions can echo the words of the current Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli: “I was very fortunate that, because of my arrest, I got care.”
Crime and its victims were a major political issue in the high-crime decades of the 1970s and 1980s. As crime rates declined in the intervening years, crime’s salience has faded. Many will recall the political caricatures of that earlier debate: tough-on-crime conservatives wanting to punish lawbreakers versus bleeding-heart liberals wanting to rehabilitate them. As the debate has shifted in the intervening decades, many on the right now realize the vital rehabilitative power of the criminal justice system for those suffering from addiction. Unfortunately, during the same period, many of their opponents have mistakenly shifted to a distorted view of “freedom” wherein “compassion” requires letting addicts suffer on the streets, committing petty crimes to feed their life-threatening behavior. Yet an arrest could guide them into life-saving treatment. Granting citizens the “freedom” to die with needles in their arms is counterfeit freedom, and certainly not the action of a compassionate society.
As the data emerge, the results of Proposition 47 in California look ominous for both those suffering from addiction and for the innocent citizens victimized by the addicts’ disease-sustaining crimes. The Washington Post reports that crime rates in California are trending up significantly in the past year, with a 23-percent increase in robberies in San Francisco and an 11-percent increase in property crimes in Los Angeles being representative, as more drug offenders are given citations instead of court dates. It may be early to definitively tie these outcomes to Proposition 47, but it surely is contributing.
The Post captures one heart-wrenching account of an Illinois mother searching for her addicted son in California, asking officials there, “Is he dead?” She has learned how to search the justice system in San Diego, not in despair, but with a sense of hope: “A few times she had seen his name in the arrest logs and felt some measure of relief. Maybe he would be forced to detox. Maybe he would get help.”
And help is just what the courts offer. Despite the misleading rhetoric that the United States locks up low-level drug users, the reality is that diverting people into treatment has been standard drug policy practice. For decades, the Drug Court model has been expanding across the country, with over 2,500 now in operation nationwide. Drug Courts offer addicts a chance to divert out of the regular criminal justice system, thereby avoiding jail and a criminal record if they complete court-monitored treatment. The requirements are rigorous, and usually involve months or years of intensive work, with drug tests encouraging compliance and the threat of jail motivating change. It is difficult because that is exactly what the addict needs to change.
Unfortunately, in the wake of Proposition 47’s reduction of many drug crimes to citation-worthy offenses, most addicts in California no longer have a route to the court-imposed help they need. Now paying a fine and returning back to where their addiction can continue to fester seems more falsely appealing.
The central challenge of addiction is denial. As Jan Goldsmith, a San Diego City Attorney told the Post,
I don’t know many addicts who magically wake up and say, “Hey, I want help.” They have a terrible, horrible disease. They’re addicted to drugs. Often times, they’re stealing to buy those drugs. You need consequences. They don’t get better on the honor system. You need to nudge them, shove them, kick them in the door.
Families of addicts attest to this reality, but they often don’t have the tools to force compliance. Our court system does. Unfortunately, lawmakers in California have put these substance abusers at greater risk by removing the consequences of their behavior and their incentive to change. But Washington lawmakers still have a chance to learn the true lesson. Because addiction is a disease, sanctioned, supervised treatment is a necessary tool. Being told of a loved one’s arrest is tough, but the families of substance abusers know there is a much worse call they can receive.