Opioid Crisis: Treatment Instead of Jail Time

Opioid Crises: Treatment Instead of Jail Time

Much like attitudes and opinions have changed toward the U.S. government’s’ War on Drugs, attitudes and opinions are changing about how the country tackles the current opioid crisis.

Incarceration is currently the typical destination for those arrested with possession of the drug. But more voices are being raised to suggest an alternative - offering treatment to those addicted to the drug rather than jail time.

The idea makes sense from both a health care and criminal justice standpoint. Those who are addicted need medical treatment and support to break the cycle of addiction, improve their health and prolong their lives.

And dealing with the root cause of many drug crimes - addiction to the drug itself - can also prevent a person from breaking the law in this way ever again.

The Depth of the Problem

The opioid crisis has reached the point of an epidemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Numbers from the CDC paint a chilling picture of how far out of control the situation has gotten.


  • About 66 percent of all overdose deaths in the U.S. are related to opioids.
  • The number of deaths from prescription opioids and heroin was five times higher in 2016 than it was in 1999
  • More than 600,000 people have died from an opioid overdose between 2000 and 2016
  • Every day, 115 Americans die from an opioid overdose, on average

All of this has happened despite strong federal, state and local laws against the manufacture, sale and possession of heroin and black-market prescription opioids.

Treatment, Not Jail

Among those who have spoken out about the issue is the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization points out that between 2000 and 2012, the number of accidental death from opioids increased by 90 percent in the state.

Across the state, there are less than 900 beds available for detox, where patients begin to learn methods for breaking the cycle of addiction. According to the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum, 39,700 residents of the state need that treatment.

Instead, many end up in jail cells. That not only keeps them from getting treatment, but also costs the state much more money. According to the ACLU, it costs about $53,000 each year to incarcerate someone, while it costs about $2,500 for substance abuse treatment.

The organization calls for reforms that “transfer funds spent on arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating drug users to substance abuse treatment and supporting social services.”

Education Programs Provide Perspective

Balanced against this are the needs for public safety and justice. Just where the line is drawn is a matter of debate. Lawmakers in most states and at the federal level have continued to mandate stiff jail time for those arrested on drug-related charges.

And less than five percent of those referred to drug treatment in the criminal justice system actually get into medication-assisted programs to help them fight the addiction, according to a study from Johns Hopkins University.

But many college degree programs now offer a wider perspective on criminal justice issues.

For example, the University of Massachusetts offers a Bachelor of Arts in Crime and Justice Studies that includes a focus on social and ethical issues that are unique to the criminal justice field.

The issue also is one of public health. That’s why public health degree programs from the University of Massachusetts offer coursework that better prepares public health professionals for being part of the solution to healthcare issues such as opioid addiction.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or master’s degree in public health will put students in a position where they will learn more about options for tackling health issues, including the treatment vs. incarceration debate for opioids.

That’s a good career position to be in as the debate on the issue continues at both the local, state and federal level.