What do We do With Drug Addicts?

By William Sharon on October 9, 2013

Morally speaking, there are two primary methods by which punishment is justified (three if you consider restorative punishment, which for several reasons I will not in this article). There is retributive punishment, and utilitarian punishment. For the sake of ethical justification, the distinction between the two is paramount.

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Retributive punishment is relatively intuitive; “Josh hit Tom, so Josh deserved to get a timeout.” The concept is understandable to most people, and it ostensibly makes a lot of sense. Retributive punishment basically argues that actions should have consequences, regardless of the consequences of those consequences (hopefully that made sense).

Utilitarian punishment appears similar to retributive punishment in practice, however the justification is entirely different. Consider the previous example, “Josh hit Tom, so Josh gets a timeout.” In the aforementioned case, Josh deserved timeout, and thus, was punished accordingly. The utilitarian judge would argue for a differing justification, however. Essentially, this judge would say that “Josh hit Tom, and so as to minimize future hurt to all children, an example must be made of Josh, and thus, he is punished accordingly.”

Ultimately, most punishments serve both agendas. For example, a thief who is apprehended and punished will have gotten what he deserved in the eyes of the retributive judge, and will have deterred the next thief from attempting a similar crime, thus benefitting society in the eyes of the utilitarian judge.

In the case of drug-addicted criminal offenders, the difference between these two methods of punishment has plagued the courts relentlessly. While the process is certainly more convoluted than this, it can be broken down into a simple debate:

Is it better to incarcerate drug-addicted criminals, or to rehabilitate them?

Generally, courts do make an effort to afford rehabilitation to alcohol and drug-addicted offenders. “Most prisons have AA/NA classes,” says newly appointed Lake County Ohio Public Defender, Charles Grieshammer, “[though] they do not have the intensive treatment that is available outside.” Grieshammer points out that “when someone is sent to prison, the Judge has basically given up trying to rehabilitate [them] through programs, and any rehabilitation is due mainly to the deterrent effect of being locked up in an unpleasant environment.”

While prison creates a physical barrier between addicts and drugs, the wall is not as solid as it could be. Indeed, criminal drug abuse is often perpetuated by domestic trafficking within jails. Furthermore, and as Grieshammer notes, “there are limited treatment options available in prison.” Due to the apparent dearth of adequate rehabilitation measures for incarcerated addicts, many offenders who are unable to continue abusing substances while imprisoned, relapse upon release.

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But judges are not unaware of the problem. “All judges recognize that [the] addict off drugs [is] substantially less likely to commit crimes,” says Grieshammer. “[In cases where] treatment is available and appropriate, society benefits.” That being said, there are instances in which judges are limited by legislation. “Some [drug] convictions carry mandatory prison terms,” says Grieshammer, “and whatever treatment can be obtained [has] to be done in prison.”

As far as the utilitarian/retribution debate is concerned, Grieshammer would seek to circumvent the issue entirely. “I do not believe we should criminalize drug use,” he says, “it is a health issue, and should be treated as a health issue.” Medical studies tend to support Grieshammer’s view, claiming that in a majority of cases drug abuse is linked to brain disorders, and that often, there is a strong genetic component. “Our justice system should not be used to force people to make healthier choices,” says Grieshammer, “we are so concerned with the harm [people are] doing to [their] health that we lock [them] up with hardened criminals.”

Moreover, Grieshammer stresses that “our justice system should be used for punishing people for crimes they have committed and been convicted of and not for crimes we think they might commit in the future.” Essentially, he laments the fact that addicts are often incarcerated out of the fear that they might commit crimes later.

While the deterrence of drug use due to fear of incarceration may be a utilitarian benefit of heightened drug-penalties, it serves to hamper societal well-being on a second front. “When people are sick or overdosing on drugs they and their fellow users are afraid to call for immediate help [for] fear of arrest,” Grieshammer points out. “In those situations, drugs are present in their system and there is a great likelihood that they will be arrested.” In fact, Grieshammer notes that “in Lake County, we have had a number of people arrested upon their release from the hospital where they sought emergency medical care [for drug-related issues].”

Indeed, an epidemical level of drug-addicts are deterred from seeking the help they need due to fear of arrest. A 1991 Harvard Law Review article, by Dorothy Roberts addressed the effect of drug-legislation on pregnant women, noting that “far from deterring injurious drug use, prosecution of drug-addicted mothers in fact deters pregnant women from using available health and counseling services because it causes women to fear that, if they seek help, they could be reported to government authorities and be charged with a crime.”

Non-experts often have differing opinions, however. There are many college students who do not see the fear of arrest as a completely rational excuse for the decriminalization of drug use. “If you have a drug problem there are plenty of rehab places you can contact to get help,” says Ohio State University student Bennett Wildey, “and even if you call the cops, if you are reasonable, you will be fine. The cops and judges aren't always out there to throw you in jail.”

While Wildey makes a valid point, there are certainly instances where the likelihood of arrest is an understandable obstacle preventing people from seeking medical assistance. In her article, Roberts argues that the penalization of drug addicts differs from person to person on what are often socioeconomic or racial lines. “Government intrusion is particularly harsh for poor women of color,” she explains, “they are the least likely to obtain adequate prenatal care, the most vulnerable to government monitoring, and the least able to conform to the white, middle-class standard of motherhood.” Roberts’ position questions both the discriminatory nature of drug-prosecution, and the effect that fear of arrest has on the health of drug addicts. “Moreover,” she argues “prosecution blinds the public to the possibility of nonpunitive solutions and to the inadequacy of the nonpunitive solutions that are currently available.” Essentially Roberts claims that the criminalization of certain drugs has merely perpetuated the lack of awareness of rehabilitation methods outside of the criminal justice system.

While the debate presented is largely a consideration of the utilitarian implications of drug-addict prosecution in relation to morals, the argument carries an economic component as well. “It is very expensive to build and run a prison, so the immediate cost of incarceration is higher [than the cost of rehabilitation],” says Grieshammer, “the long term costs are also higher as it is true that people on drugs are more likely to commit crimes that those not on drugs.”

The appropriate measure employed in drug-cases depends on the answers to several questions. First, do we consider drug use to be a health issue? Second, do we believe that the prevention of drug addiction is achieved more completely through the implementation of fear, in the form of restrictive legislation, or through the rehabilitation of drug addicts outside of the criminal justice system? Ultimately, it seems that the courts fall somewhere in the middle of this debate.

By William Sharon

Uloop Writer
My name is Wil Sharon and I am a junior English major at OSU. I am pre-law, and have a minor in creative writing. I love sports and play baseball and soccer frequently. I hope to one day become a lawyer, though I would also like to publish books.

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