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Is jail time the wrong approach after drug crimes?

Often, the justice system's reaction to drug crimes is simply to put those who get arrested in jail. They may also get fined. The system punishes them and hopes they learn from it: The authorities view punishment as a deterrent.

But is that the right approach?

The reality of addiction

The problem with putting people behind bars for drug crimes is that addiction often plays a very real role. People who get addicted to substances may do anything to get them, even acting against their own best interests and doing things they would otherwise never do.

Jail time does not address the real problem. Fines do not address the real problem. Deterrence alone does not work because the addiction is stronger than rational thought. Most addicts do not suffer through withdrawal symptoms simply because they do not want to pay a fine.

This has been the reality in the United States forever, and the justice system should recognize it. After all, way back in 1939 the Assistant Surgeon General said that prison time neglected the true needs of those suffering from drug addiction. He said they were "treated there as prisoners deserving punishment rather than as patients who needed treatment."

He went on to note that relapse often happened instantly after people got out of jail. No one ever treated their real ailment, so they went right back into the grips of addiction. This created what he called a "vicious circle" of prison sentences and legal violations.

Drug courts

The argument he was putting forth is that jail time is essentially doing nothing. And yet the government continues to use it. For instance, simply possessing heroin can put you behind bars for 10 years in Kentucky. For heroin trafficking, you could wind up with 20 years in prison.

Fortunately, some steps have been taken to act on this decades-old advice. States now use drug courts, which can help those struggling with addiction get into treatment programs. If they complete these programs, they may not have to serve jail time. It is not an option for everyone, but it does give some offenders another choice.

In the end, the hope is that the treatment programs can help someone defeat addiction once and for all. That will keep them from committing similar crimes in the future in a way that jail time never could. Kentucky uses these drug courts, and it is one way that the state responds to the Assistant Surgeon General's words from 1939.

Your options

Are you facing drug charges? If so, it is important to know all of the legal options you have. These may include the use of drug courts, rather than jail time and fines.

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