End the Stereotyping, Start the Change
Over recent years, mental illnesses have been discussed more and more. People have been sharing their own personal experiences of feelings of anxiety, depression, etc. in hopes of helping others who are currently suffering. Those who step up and discuss these difficult feelings out loud are admired as they should be, but people need to realize that each individual goes about handling these feelings in different ways. While some sufferers resort to self-harm, others rely on drugs and alcohol to try to diminish the feelings that they so badly want to go away. As of now, there is a strong stigma that exists about drug addicts, alcoholics, etc. Although it is a person’s choice to start drinking, start using drugs, etc., it is not a person’s choice to become dependent on these substances and to start abusing them.
Elizabeth Spelman discusses justice in her book, Repair, which is something I can’t imagine addicts ever getting as an outcome of incarceration. I think that there should be more of a choice between rehabilitation and prison time for addicts because addiction is a serious illness and people who suffer from it deserve the same chance at getting better as people with any other serious illness; addiction is a problem and rehabilitation is the only solution.
Spelman discusses two kinds of justice: retributive and restorative. Retributive justice is just punishing the offender for whatever crime he/she commits, which in this case, it would be a DUI, possession, etc. Then, there is restorative justice, which is more complex. Spelman writes,
According to the restorative justice advocate, the current criminal justice system not only fails the victim…(p. 55).
Based on what Spelman does say in her book, it is easy to make some inferences as to how she would feel about other controversies that are not mentioned, such as this topic. While it is easy to look at addicts as bad people who have made bad decisions, perhaps we should think of them as victims, or at least as people who are suffering and deserve help. Sending an addict to prison for possession or use of an illegal drug will not necessarily teach them to adapt a healthier lifestyle. It could in fact worsen their feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
Rehab, on the other hand, sets goals and programs and teaches a healthier lifestyle, while also forming a community among the people there: people who can truly understand each other and work together to get better. Justice to me is more of a form of acceptance and peace; prison doesn’t give either of these to the sufferer.
The main cause of addiction is usually depression. If people get treated for depression and receive immense support and help, why aren’t all addicts at least given the option to be helped? The law should definitely encourage addicts to seek help before just giving the addict a prison sentence. There is plenty of evidence to show that incarceration tends to be more of a temporary fix to a very serious problem as once addicts are released they fall back into old habits, while rehabilitation teaches addicts how to make it through every day, even the bad days, without using.
There is little to no dispute that there is a drug epidemic, but the dispute is on how to handle it. My aunt is a lawyer in New Jersey and has also run for state assembly twice. In addition to that, she has a son who is a recovering addict. Because of this, she believes and promotes the idea that addicts should receive all the help that they need. She explained to me that there are different kinds of arrests for drug activities. First, there are the so-called, “business people”. These are the people who don’t necessarily use drugs, but they sell them. Then, there are the people who have problems with substance abuse and they get arrested for possession, using, DUI, etc.
Union County in New Jersey has opened a high school that teenagers with substance abuse problems can go to after rehab. This way, they aren’t going back to the same conditions they were in before where they first developed their addiction problem. Fortunately, states have started to deal with addicts by sending them to rehab instead of prison.
There is plenty of evidence to support the fact that the rehabilitation of addicts is more successful than the incarceration of them. Spelman writes,
The proper remedy is not to remove offenders further from the community but to have them participate directly in the repair of the victim and of the community…(p. 66).
If you put an addict in prison, you are removing them further from the community, which decreases the chances of the addict ever living a healthy life. However, if you teach an addict how to cope with their feelings in a healthy way and how to resist temptations, they are more likely to get clean and stay clean. Mental Health Commissioner Terri White, says, “The re-arrest rate of drug court participants is 23.5 percent, compared to 54 percent of those incarcerated, those receiving treatment had high rates of employment, higher monthly incomes and were more likely to be taking care of their own children.” It seems as though incarceration is only a temporary fix. If someone is locked in a cell, they obviously will be sober while they’re locked up as they will have no access to drugs, but once they are released they tend to fall back into their old habits. Rehab teaches patients the coping mechanisms they need to live a healthy life.
It seems as though the first obvious step in treating any kind of unhealthy addiction is to prevent it from becoming a problem in the first place. The Red Ribbon organization has a goal of preventing addiction and to promote healthy lifestyles and habits.
I went on a Red Ribbon Fundraiser walk last year and they said, “everyone knows someone, help prevent the next one”. How many tragic stories do we have to see on television or read in the newspaper? How many loved ones do we have to watch as their life goes in a downwards spiral? We are taught the meaning of abstinence at a young age, we are taught not to do drugs, not to drink excessively, etc. So, what’s the likelihood of someone doing these things just because they were told not to? Do they give into these bad, life-threatening habits for attention? Perhaps, although to me, it seems as though ruining your life just for attention doesn’t seem like the most realistic reason for people to become addicted to drugs or even alcohol for that matter. The more likely possibility is that life gets hard and people get depressed. “That will never happen to me”, “I would never get addicted”. These are words that you’ve probably heard before, but addicts have said those words too. Someone doesn’t go from being perfectly okay to being an addict just overnight; it’s one of those things that happens gradually when you’re not paying attention. You have a bad day, so you get home and drink a glass of wine. You’re in pain, so you take a few pills. When does it become too much? When are these habits considered addictive and not just a normal way of dealing with life when it gets too hard?
M Scott Carter, a journalist who writes about substance abuse, interviewed state Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore., who said, “”The people that we’re looking at are not drug dealers, they are not violent offenders,” Ownbey said. “They are mothers and fathers and brothers and friends who have made some very bad decisions.” Spelman discusses apologies and how they are important on both the giving and receiving ends. One of the first steps in rehabilitation is to make apologies to anyone the addict hurt when they were addicted. These apologies are important for both the addict and everyone he/she cares about. Mending important relationships is a very important step because it gives the addict a chance to not only seek forgiveness from others, but to forgive themselves as well. Forgiveness gives the addict a chance to hopefully realize that their mistakes are in the past and that they can leave them there and look forward to a happy and healthy future. Prison, however, is simply punishment and does not address the true root of the problem, which is addiction, not the mistakes that were made when an addict is high.
Do you have the right to force someone to go to rehab? This question is perhaps one of the biggest debates when it comes to the discussion of rehabilitation; some argue that someone has to want the help to have any kind of positive outcome from rehabilitation, while others argue that even if someone is “forced” into going, they will eventually learn to accept the help being offered to them.
Mental Health Commissioner Terri White, says, “incarceration costs at more than $19,000 per inmate, while treatment programs — such as the drug court program — cost only about $5,400 per participant.” This raises yet another point as to why rehabilitation should be the first option, the go-to option, before using incarceration as a final measure when there are no other options left. Besides the ethical and medical point that addiction is a disease and should be treated as one, rehabilitation also makes sense economically as it is substantially cheaper than prison is. White also says, “The re-arrest rate of drug court participants is 23.5 percent, compared to 54 percent of those incarcerated, those receiving treatment had high rates of employment, higher monthly incomes and were more likely to be taking care of their own children.” It seems as though incarceration is only a temporary fix. If someone is locked in a cell, they obviously will be sober while they’re locked up as they will have no access to drugs, but once they are released they tend to fall back into their old habits. Rehab teaches patients the coping mechanisms they need to live a healthy life.
When discussing the topic of teenage pregnancies and how one should make their decision on how to handle the situation, Spelman writes,
“How might her decision affect her relation to her parents? What kind of life would the child have? What kind of emotional and economic support does Jackie need?” (p. 44)
Although the topics of teenage pregnancies and drug addictions are obviously very different, both situations require love and support. An addict will probably choose to continue using if they feel alone, but perhaps if they put more consideration into how their current decisions will affect his/her relationships with other people in the future then they will choose to go to rehab and take the first steps in living a sober life.
While addicts should be given the option to go to rehab, it only seems fair that they can only avoid going to prison for so long. After a certain point, if the addict isn’t making any effort to change their habits, why should they continue to receive any sort of special treatment? On Election Day in November 2012, Californians passed Proposition 36, which reformed California’s notorious Three Strikes Law. No more Californians will be sentenced to life in prison for minor and nonviolent drug law offenses (DPA). Before this reformation was enacted, the essence of the Three Strikes law was to require a defendant convicted of any new felony, having suffered one prior conviction of a serious felony to be sentenced to state prison for twice the term otherwise provided for the crime. If the defendant was convicted of any felony with two or more prior strikes, the law mandated a state prison term of at least 25 years to life (ca.gov). While the concept of having a certain number of strikes, or chances, makes sense as the addict needs to be motivated to get better, three chances doesn’t seem like quite enough to quit such a time consuming, life-threatening, habit.
While a lot has been done to improve the way drug addicts are treated in the legal and court systems, there is still plenty of work to be done. Just like any other mental illness, the feelings that a drug addict experiences are hard to understand unless you are the one with the problem. Spelman portrays the idea that the victim, who in this case, is the addict, is failed if they are not truly helped. Drug addicts should be looked at as victims as a disease, not suspects of a crime; they should be helped, not incarcerated.
As a society, there is so much more we can do to prevent addiction. While many schools have already done their part by teaching their students about the dangers of drugs and many parents have explained this to their children at home, there is still more that the rest of us can do. For example, we can donate any amount to the Red Ribbon Organization to help them help addicts. Or, we can encourage more people to go into the career of becoming a substance abuse counselor. Most importantly, we should stop stereotyping addicts and start encouraging them to seek help. End the stereotyping, start the change.
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Spelman, Elizabeth V. Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World. Boston: Beacon, 2002. Print.
“The Red Ribbon Day Drug Prevention Walk.” Prevention Links. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
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