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Justice institute: Don't turn away from treatment-focused approaches

December 14, 2017
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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A report issued this week by the Vera Institute of Justice makes a research case for maintaining the momentum toward treatment-focused approaches to combating the opioid crisis, resisting a return to the punitive mindset of the past.

Minimizing Harm: Public Health and Justice System Responses to Drug Use and the Opioid Crisis cites numerous studies backing treatment initiatives designed to reduce recidivism. The report from the institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization, also suggests the importance of considering a range of harm reduction approaches, even citing evidence from overseas that controversial supervised injection facilities improve access to health services without increasing illicit drug use. It also states that decriminalization of drug possession in Portugal has led to more enrollees in drug treatment and a decline in injection drug use.

“As policymakers grapple with critical questions of how to best respond to an overdose epidemic that is claiming lives, some are advocating for a tough-on-crime, punitive approach. The research evidence, as described in this brief, is clear that incarceration does not reduce drug use, address criminality, or mitigate health consequences, including overdose,” the report states.

The brief notes that while punitive responses to the drug crisis may have slowed from all-time highs in the 1990s and early 2000s, they haven't exactly gone away. Data from 2015 indicate that arrests for drug offenses make up 14% of all arrests. Moreover, 84% of drug arrests are for possession offenses.

The report also cites the disproportionate impact that the nation's historical approach to the drug war has had on communities of color. For example, under New York state's mandatory minimum sentences during the period when its punitive Rockefeller drug laws were in effect, incarceration rates for African-American men ages 21 to 44 were more than 40 times those of their white peers.

But the report states that both policymakers and law enforcement professionals are embracing approaches that divert low-level drug offenders to treatment and support services. One frequently cited example is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program developed by the Seattle police department, an effort that research has shown has led to lower short- and long-term rearrest rates and more successful placement in housing and employment.

The brief adds that politically popular drug court programs also have been associated with reductions in recidivism. But the authors warn of downsides of drug courts as well, including lack of client support that often leads to program failure and subsequent lengthy incarceration, as well as an overreliance on expensive residential treatment in some jurisdictions.