Our nation’s police are on the front lines of witnessing the consequences of substance abuse. Arresting a socialite who is high on prescription painkillers for shoplifting, or sweeping up a tented community of homeless heroin addicts off a sidewalk — to fending off the superhuman strength of a meth addict’s rage is all part of a day on the streets for lawmen.
The frequency of slapping handcuffs on substance abusers during the commission of a crime has become a daily, often times hourly occurrence in most of our cities. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), more than half of all individuals — 60 percent — arrested for crimes test positive for illicit drugs. Many have a co-occurring mental disorder.
Sadly, there is often more judgment than compassion and little to no training for law enforcement officers to look beyond the symptoms of the offense to the underlying disease of addiction. Historically, the drug-addicted, the alcoholic, and those suffering from other mental illnesses are typically scorned and shamed by many in law enforcement. They are often abused physically and humiliated by stereotypical profiling such “junkies,” “alcoholics,” and “nut jobs.” Shouldn’t the oaths sworn by law enforcement officials to serve and protect also apply to them?
NFL players have fallen on their knees during the national anthem to kick off a prison pardons campaign that has the potential to revolutionize badly needed reform in our criminal justice system. They are petitioning President Donald Trump to issue “blanket pardons” for drug offenders over 60 and to eliminate life without parole for nonviolent crimes. That’s a powerful and productive use of their status as role models, and it’s heartwarming to witness that they recognize how the scores of their teammates are ill, not flawed. Two-thirds of our country’s prisoners are grappling with addiction, and more than half of all prisoners suffer from severe mental illnesses.
But what about coming together to provide help before incarceration for the nonviolent offenders? Sure, it’s sobering to be in jail, but that’s not the meaning of true sobriety, and the cycle of addiction is sure to repeat itself, even though the individual is behind bars. Up to 80 percent of inmates abuse drugs or alcohol, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), and 50 percent of all jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted.
There are no immediate solutions for America’s drug problem, especially when it comes to drug-related crimes, but New Jersey’s “Operation Helping Hand,” is at least an antidote to give the willing a shot at recovery.
New Jersey State Attorney General Gubir Grewai’s declaration over how he is “no longer going just to sweep (addicts) up and put their pictures in the paper and shame them, that we are no longer going to add to the stigma that’s associated with this disease of addiction,” is a step in the right direction for achieving real recovery for addicts and alcoholics.
During a recent drug sting authorized by Grewaj, the almost 180 users rounded up were not immediately locked away to post bail or sit idle while they awaited trials. Instead, they were given the option to undergo treatment for addiction. 80 percent of them were willing to enter drug rehabs, where they will receive medically assisted detoxification from drugs, education, and support for their disease as part of “Operation Helping Hand.”
Hundreds of thousands of adults with no prior criminal histories would be spared becoming one more inmate in an already overcrowded prison population if they are given access to low-level defendant diversion programs. But these treatment options must be made affordable for those with no and low income.
I am not suggesting people should avoid being held accountable for violating the law or coddled, but that they should be given the same medical care as gun-shot victims and others injured in the course of committing a crime. These individuals are handcuffed to gurneys and transported to hospitals before being taken to jail. It’s every bit as inhumane to expect a mentally wounded person to demonstrate sanity as it is to watch a person bleed out physically. Handing out detox drugs for a couple of days barely alleviates the symptoms of the underlying mental disease. People who are struggling are in need of medical intervention, compassion, and a chance at long-term recovery before they appear before a judge.
Los Angeles County Jail, New York’s Riker’s Island Jail, and Chicago’s Cook County Jail house more mentally ill inmates than any of the existing psychiatric hospitals in the United States. Are we incarcerating or warehousing convicted criminals who are mentally ill? This is a crime perpetrated against humanity. If we are to believe that the criminal justice system seeks to rehabilitate those who are paroled to integrate into society as productive citizens, then we need to ensure group support and medical intervention for continuum care is available. It’s unrealistic to expect drug addicts and alcoholics pay restitution and repair the damages they inflicted on their families, friends, and employers, if they are prevented from getting the help they need while they are behind bars. These kinds of amends are a vital part of maintaining sobriety.
The reports that almost 100 percent of drug addicts “return to drug abuse,” with the majority of drug abusers committing new crimes does not surprise me. Locking up non-violent substance abusers is only a band-aid over a bullet hole in the war on drugs. When individuals are drug-free and receiving treatment for the disease, there is a far higher chance that we are not delivering them right back into the illegal drug market industry once they leave jail on bond awaiting trial or as parolees.
Recovery is long-term, not an instant fix. Court ordered mandatory aftercare as part of prison sentencing would undoubtedly influence the continuing rehabilitation of individuals by arresting the disease, as opposed to merely handcuffing the mental illness.