Throwing People With Substance Use Disorders In Jail Is No Substitute for Treatment

Too many states are turning toward forced incarceration for those with addiction problems and that’s a mistake.

In 1991, 18 states allowed people with substance use disorders to be put in jail; now 38 states allow it. That’s a troubling trend, argue Leo Beletsky and Denise Tomasini-Joshi in an opinion piece in the New York Times. Involuntary incarceration seems attractive to lawmakers who want to say they’re addressing the opioid addiction crisis and removing a possible source of crime. Problem is, those being incarcerated haven’t committed any crime (other than taking an illegal substance) and jails aren’t treatment centers, write Beletsky, the faculty director of the Health in Justice Action Lab, and Tomasini-Joshi, a division director at the Public Health Program of the Open Society Foundations.

They use this metaphor: “Imagine your aunt has developed diabetes and you want her to get better. Medical science suggests that medicine might help, but you decide that the better strategy is to lock your aunt in a room and force her to eat only lettuce—even though she hates vegetables. No medication, no discussion of other options.”

There’s a lot that’s troubling about using jails as treatment centers, the authors argue. To take just one example, a judge could overrule a clinician’s recommendations.

“Would we want family members with cancer or diabetes to have their course of treatment mandated by a judge?”

It’s a rhetorical question.