Hanley Foundation Director of Public Policy Joshua Horton co-authored this article with Rene Perras

“Arguably the greatest cause of incarceration in this country is due to substance use disorder and mental health issues. Over the past 40 years the incarceration rate has increased 700% due to the “war on drugs.” Despite this, drug overdose and substance use disorder are at all-time highs. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and the felonization of simple possession of these controlled substances cause irreparable damage and collateral damage in millions of lives. Still today, the most common way our society addresses SUD is through criminalization, furthering stigma and pushing citizens into a system that does not treat the substance use disorder, nor the trauma, mental disorders, and behavioral issues that are the underlying causes for the symptom of substance use disorder to begin with. 

Then, to add insult to injury, this misguided policy of incarceration simultaneously removes many effective recovery options these individuals need in order to become productive members of society. They are essentially thrown into “crime college,” later to be released with felony convictions that will limit their access to education, housing, and employment. These are tools that an individual needs to successfully reintegrate to society. Even if prosecutors later lower a possession of narcotics charge to a misdemeanor the arrest will forever show as a felony arrest on this person’s record, placing a scarlet letter for all future employers and housing authorities to marginalize these individuals through background checks. As a result of taking away the basic necessities required to reenter and reintegrate into society it should not surprise the public that recidivism rates are more than 50%. It also makes for a superb business model and revenue generator. The most revealing statistic of this rate of recidivism is that most individuals are returned to jail or prison on technical violations, such as failing a drug screen for controlled substances, failure to pay fines, and/or new arrest for possession of controlled substances. This places a revolving door on jails and prisons. While the rhetoric of “tough on crime” policies is sure to garner votes, the plain fact is that the majority of our prison system is filled with nonviolent offenders. 60 to 80% of those currently behind bars qualify for the diagnosis of substance use disorder.

Of course private prison industry owners, such as the GEO Group Inc., which is based right here in Palm Beach County, sees the strategic business model of furthering and lobbying for policies which increase penalties for drug possession because without proper recovery and treatment, they are almost guaranteed to be repeat customers. These corporations are publicly traded on Wall Street and guarantee certain returns to their investors through the certainty of government payouts for their services. The way to guarantee ROI is to incarcerate and hold as many individuals as possible for as long as possible. Some of these contracts even guarantee certain levels of incarceration. These abuses by the private prison industry and the unregulated substance use disorder treatment industry frequently lead to civil litigation. These lawsuits may help create new public policy reform by holding bad actors accountable by pressuring the industry to adopt a best practice approach, not just for care and treatment but for all of the marketing techniques and patient brokering schemes employed to entice client/patients to their facilities by putting more “heads in beds.” 

Florida Attorney Joshua S. Horton, Director of Public Policy @Hanley Foundation 

To read the entire story:  Opioid Addiction Lawyer Examines why Substance Use Disorder Victims are Denied Justice and Treatment