Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations - A Research-Based Guide

The connection between drug abuse and crime is well known.

Drug abuse is implicated in at least three types of drug-related offenses: (1) offenses defined by drug possession or sales, (2) offenses directly related to drug abuse (e.g., stealing to get money for drugs), and (3) offenses related to a lifestyle that predisposes the drug abuser to engage in illegal activity, for example, through association with other offenders or with illicit markets. Individuals who use illicit drugs are more likely to commit crimes, and it is common for many offenses, including violent crimes, to be committed by individuals who had used drugs or alcohol prior to committing the crime, or who were using at the time of the offense.

According to 2012 statistics from the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the total correctional population is estimated to be 6,937,600, with 4,794,000 individuals on probation or under parole supervision, and drug law violations accounting for the most common type of criminal offense (Glaze and Herberman 2013). In a survey of State and Federal prisoners, BJS estimated that about half of the prisoners met Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for drug abuse or dependence, and yet fewer than 20 percent who needed treatment received it (Chandler et al. 2009; Karberg and Mumola 2006). Of those surveyed, 14.8 percent of State and 17.4 percent of Federal prisoners reported having received drug treatment since admission (Karberg and Mumola 2006).

Juvenile justice systems also report high levels of drug abuse. In 2008, approximately 10 percent of the estimated 2.1 million juvenile arrests were for drug abuse or underage drinking violations (Puzzanchera 2009). As many as two-thirds of detained juveniles may have a substance use disorder (SUD); female juveniles who enter the system generally have higher SUD rates than males (McClelland et al. 2004a).

Treatment offers the best alternative for interrupting the drug abuse/criminal justice cycle.

Although the past several decades have witnessed an increased interest in providing substance abuse treatment services for criminal justice offenders, only a small percentage of offenders has access to adequate services, especially in jails and community correctional facilities (Taxman et al. 2007; Sabol et al. 2010). Not only is there a gap in the availability of these services for offenders, but often there are few choices in the types of services provided. Treatment that is of insufficient quality and intensity or that is not well suited to the needs of offenders may not yield meaningful reductions in drug use and recidivism. Untreated substance abusing offenders are more likely than treated offenders to relapse to drug abuse and return to criminal behavior. This can lead to re-arrest and re-incarceration, jeopardizing public health and public safety and taxing criminal justice system resources. Treatment is the most effective course for interrupting the drug abuse/criminal justice cycle for offenders with drug abuse problems.

Drug abuse treatment can be incorporated into criminal justice settings in a variety of ways. Examples include treatment in prison followed by community-based treatment after release; drug courts that blend judicial monitoring and sanctions with treatment by imposing treatment as a condition of probation; and treatment under parole or probation supervision. Drug abuse treatment can benefit from the cross-agency coordination and collaboration of criminal justice professionals, substance abuse treatment providers, and other social service agencies. By working together, the criminal justice and treatment systems can optimize resources to benefit the health, safety, and well-being of the individuals and communities they serve.