Treatment vs. Punishment: The Changing Landscape of Drug Crimes

For the past 20+ years, the approach to drug crimes and punishments in Oregon and throughout the country has been simple: lock up offenders and throw away the key. During that time, many people believed that they would be safer if all drug offenders were simply locked away in prison.

The result has been unfortunate. Our jails are overcrowded, we’ve criminalized what is arguably a medical and psychological condition, and as a society we’ve spent a fortune creating a system that simply isn’t working.

Fortunately, we’re starting to come to our senses. In recent years, Portland (and Oregon in general) as well as other cities and states, are coming to realize that treatment, rather than prison time for drug and alcohol abuse might be a smarter choice.

In today’s post, we’ll look more closely at the alternative treatment programs available for drug crimes in Oregon and a few of the other issues facing our communities when it comes to treating drug and alcohol addiction.

The Problem With The “Punishment Mindset”

As I mentioned earlier, the idea of legislating punishment, rather than treatment, for drug crimes is somewhat misguided. Why?

Not only does locking up drug offenders (specifically those possessing or using drugs, not dealing or trafficking drugs) not help society, but it makes it significantly less likely that those locked up will have a meaningful life.

I should be extra clear: I’m not talking about drug cartels or drug traffickers. These individuals and the crimes they commit should remain heavily criminalized.

Who’s Hurt By an Outdated Approach to Drug Crimes?

Simply put, everyone.

There is no face of drug addiction. Drug addicts can and do come from all walks of life. Doctors and businesspeople can become addicted to opioids, college-aged kids can abuse ecstasy, and our grandmothers and grandfathers can become addicted to prescription sleep aids. The stereotype of a “scary drug addict” just doesn’t exist.

However, current laws don’t treat all drug crimes equally. Punishments for rock or “crack” cocaine are generally more harsh than those for ecstasy or prescription opiate abuse, for example.

Society is not better off with more people in prison, especially if some groups are given preferential treatment simply for having committed a “more acceptable” form of the same crime. It is not difficult to look at these issues and begin to see examples of racial prejudice.

Contrary to (what was at one time) popular belief, prison is not the best place to receive treatment-- in fact it’s not even close.

Once a person enters the criminal justice system and is sentenced to jail or prison time, it is a very difficult cycle to break out of. Generally speaking, a person is likely to leave prison with out of date professional skills, poorer social skills, a black mark in his or her personal history, and more problems than when they went in with. The result is repeat offenders and millions of people whose lives have been ruined by a punishment-first approach to drug and alcohol crimes.

This isn’t the way things have to be.

Heroin & Opiate Abuse

It’s impossible to talk about drug crimes in Oregon and the United States in general without touching on the horrible epidemic of opiate abuse that has been exploding in recent years.

Addictive opiate pain relievers were prescribed for aches, pains, and a variety of everyday ailments-- including on the job injuries. Unfortunately, thousands of people became addicted to these expensive pills and eventually turned to heroin as a lower-cost but extremely dangerous alternative.

Unfortunately, heroin is incredibly dangerous. Being an illegal drug, there’s obviously no quality or safety standards. It is so easy to overdose and die. Fentanyl (a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more powerful than heroin) is often mixed into heroin causing huge numbers of overdoses in a short amount of time. In the Portland area, overdoses are most common among people in their 40’s and 50’s, due in no small part to prescription and non-prescription opiate abuse.

Are the people arrested for heroin problems truly criminals? Even if, a year before they were just a person living a normal life? Is jail the right place for them? And if not, how can we say that a different drug (like crack) is “worse”? Treating drug addiction and drug crimes equally is a key step towards improving our society.

The Benefits of Treatment Programs

I’m happy to write that times are changing. There now exists a strong incentive for treatment of drug addiction instead of prison time. Over the coming years, we’ll see huge benefits from this sea change, including:

  • Lower prison costs - Treatment costs a fraction of incarceration, especially factoring in the benefits of reducing repeat offenses. The result is money that can be spent on other more valuable social programs. The total cost of the “war on drugs” is estimated to be in the trillions of dollars.

  • More help for more people - People who don’t go to prison and instead receive treatment for their drug issues will become more productive members of society.

Treatment Programs & Opportunities in Multnomah County

In Multnomah county, there’s a great program known as STOP court. Short for Sanctions Treatment Opportunities Progress, STOP court offers defendants the opportunity to keep drug crimes off their record and receive the treatment they need-- all while avoiding prison or jail time.

STOP and other similar alternative programs have a few things in common:

  • Therapy and treatment programs - AA for alcohol addiction, and other programs for other drug addictions

  • Intensive oversight - These programs require intensive and frequent drug testing, as well as in-person court appearances for frequent check-ins on a person’s progress.

It is interesting to note that 100% sobriety is not always part of these programs. For example, a person can admit to a judge that he or she slipped up and is no longer sober. The judge can issue a Sit Sanction where that person will sit in on STOP court for a few days, listening to others in the same situation share their stories.

Putting a drug addict in jail for taking drugs is not the best choice and these programs realize that.

The end goal is clear:

Help people control their drug or alcohol addictions, get their lives pulled together, and come out of the program as a better functioning member of society.

A Few Final Words on Treatment For Drug Crimes

As both a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, I’m happy to see that our culture is changing. And I’m happy that other people are talking about the issue, too. Recently,  Eric Dietrick who is an excellent public defender I have known for years, wrote an opinion piece recently in the Oregonian, where he says,

The difficulties of overcoming an addiction, combined with the additional consequences of a felony conviction, can destabilize a person’s path forward and make it harder to rebuild their lives. This runs counter to public safety.

I think he’s spot on!

Both society and our legal system are starting to see drug abusers as people who need help not just criminals to be locked up. In Multnomah County, for example, STOP court is very well known and criminal defense attorneys know what a good option it is for their clients. Oftentimes, prosecutors will offer it as an alternative to jail time when offering plea bargains.

However, our work isn’t done yet. One additional change that I’d like to see is statewide statute-based systems for first-time drug offenses (like simple drug possession). That way there’s no room for subjectivity and personal opinion when it comes to sentencing or treatment options. Everyone should be treated equally.

When that happens, we will all see the benefits.

If you or a loved one has been arrested for a drug or DUII related offense, contact me online or give me a call at (503) 227-3800. Your initial consultation is confidential and free.

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