What is a “Drug Offender”?

I have written before about Governor Chris Christie’s promising effort to move drug-addicted criminal offenders from prison to treatment. He is moving forward, with strong support from some Democratic State Legislators.

A group of us appointed to advise the effort had a great meeting at the Trenton State House a few months back. One of the things I said in my prepared remarks is that many people have some misunderstandings of what it means to send “drug offenders” to treatment rather than prison. Let me put some meat on the bones.

(1) Although plenty of drug addicted people are sent to prison for drug crimes (dealing being the most common, simple possession being incredibly rare), that doesn’t mean that all drug offenders should receive addiction treatment. Depending on the state in which you live, somewhere between a third to a half of incarcerated “drug offenders” don’t have a drug problem. They are called “drug offenders” not because of their drug use, but because they were arrested for being a drug dealer, mule, lookout etc. Jon Caulkins and I have argued that there may be a case for shortening the sentences of low-level players in the drug trade, but that’s a separate issue from whether they should receive addiction treatment: They shouldn’t, there’s nothing to treat.

(2) In contrast a huge number of “non-drug offenders” could benefit from drug treatment. Many addicted people end up in prison because of convictions for non-drug crimes (e.g., robberies, burglaries, muggings). So if you are setting up a “drug treatment instead of prison” initiative, you should consider your “non-drug offender” population a target-rich environment.

(3) Finally, the drug that results in the most incarceration is alcohol, but people sometimes forget about this when they craft “drug” treatment initiatives. Prisons are full of alcoholic offenders who have been convicted of everything from check kiting to murder. An addiction treatment initiative that confines itself to users of the illegal drugs will therefore have less impact on public health and safety than would one that addressed alcohol as well.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “What is a “Drug Offender”?”

  1. What’s a drug offender? Woody Allen after sneezing into the pile of coke and my dog after eating my bag.

  2. for (2) and (3), what proportion of those offenses are because illegal drugs cost too much for addicts to buy without resorting to crime, and what proportion because mind-altering substances encourage the doing of stupid things that get you in trouble?

  3. No. 2 is an important point. I hadn’t imagined that anyone would set up a program to treat “drug offenders” that didn’t include these people. And I don’t think I’d want to see them released early or diverted, either. (As opposed to getting treatment while incarcerated, which seems like a no-brainer.) Were you suggesting that?

  4. “I have written before about Governor Chris Christie’s promising effort to move drug-addicted criminal offenders from prison to treatment. He is moving forward, with strong support from some Democratic State Legislators.”

    These two sentences make me ill. Chis Christie is an asshole. Why are democrats doing ANYTHING to help him? We live in a different political world that apparently the dems don’t yet understand……no surprise there. Hence, they get rolled and end up losing. It’s why I changed my registration to independent a few years ago.

    1. I’m as partisan as anyone, but really is it so far beyond the pale to imagine that these legislators think their neighbors might have sent them to Trenton to try to solve problems faced by people in their constituencies, and not merely to play partisan politics?

      1. Christie is one of the worst out there. He even went to Ohio to try to get companies to leave and move to NJ! Stupid idea but just the smarminess of it shows what he is all about. I wouldn’t help him do a damned thing…….except become a one term guvnur. I guess my overall wish is to see democrats start to fight fire with fire. It’s just typical of the liberal mind to want to get along and to think that if we all just get along and work together then the world would be a better place. It drives me nuts that dems won’t fight hard and play the game as nasty as the repubs do…….and we just end up with half measures and crappy legislation that makes things worse than they were before in some cases. I’d rather see us have big debates and big fights even if there is no BILL in the end that gets signed.

    2. Look, either you make the world a better place, or you don’t. Partisan bullshit has its place. But do you want people to suffer and die so that the governor of NJ gets replaced? If so, I don’t want you on my “side”.

      1. Don’t worry. I’m not on your “side.” I dissociated myself from the democraps years ago. I’ll only vote for a liberal if they’re willing to tell it like it is and not compromise.

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