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The Opioid Crisis in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the Opioid Epidemic and its effects on America.

The rampant abuse of opioids and drugs are evident in the incarcerated population of America. As stated by the United States Department of Justice, approximately half of the state and federal prisoners meet criteria for substance misuse disorder (1). As the opioid crisis becomes increasingly heightened in America it effectively increases the influx of incarcerated opioid addicts. The opiate issue in America has a negative effect, not only on the individual but also the whole society as well. The traditional reaction is with punitive-based criminal justice actions against these opioid abusers in an attempt to deter addiction and reduce recidivism in the criminal justice system. The stark outcome is evident as the success rates are very low without the proper treatment or prevention regarding social and economic factors.

As a result, other practices such as drug courts are becoming an alternative for at-risk drug offenders. Although drug courts vary, the basic model includes, offender assessments, judicial interaction, monitoring, and treatments. Drug abuse has many factors that include not only the overuse of the drug, but the mental health effects and the social stigmatism surrounding the addiction. Many factors are looked over for these addicts as it is statistically proven that Heroin users have been found to participate in a higher proportion of crimes outside of drug possession, with the strength of the addiction affecting the level and amount of crime (2). The probable cause for this is the strength of the opioid, causing the addicts to be so heavily dependent on it that they are willing to do anything for it under the influence of the drug. With this, criminal justice systems have a more broad perspective on how to combat addiction and promote its’ efficacy through all aspects of opioid abuse. While in jail, these abusers are forced to be in opioid withdrawal and can cause cruel symptoms that can last up to days or weeks and is the frequent cause of relapses and prevention of discontinuation from the drugs. Drug reversal treatments are utilized to eradicate the opioid dependence in the addict by first detoxifying and shifting completely to the alternative drugs. Naloxone and Buprenorphine is the more common drug reversal treatment as it is a more cost-efficient partial agonist and the risk of overdose is decreased in comparison to a full agonist like Methadone that has a shorter half-life and has more potential for abuse and overdose (3). The counseling strategies implemented in the criminal justice system manage the behavioral and social effects the opioids have on the abuser. These services aid the incarcerated through addressing the less common but imposing factors such as interpersonal skills, lifestyle support, knowledge of the abuse, and the constant commitment through this program. As this process is fairly new, there are very few that are eligible in spite of its high success rate in comparison to punitive punishments. Studies have even shown that inmates that participate in treatment while incarcerated are more likely to enter treatment centers earlier after their release (4). Many states do not prioritize the adequate access to treat inmates suffering opioid disorder, even though it has been proven to have beneficial results through proper treatment assistance.

Picture from Medscape

Common arguments for this alternative treatment include price and falsification of efficacy. When encouraging drug courts and reversal treatments in the criminal justice system, the deterrence itself would cost less than the constant recidivism that would cost inexplicably more than a successful treatment that could impede or stop the readmission of a same population. As drug courts and reversal treatments have very strict rules for eligibility, the population of the incarcerated drug abusers participating is very meager and the success rate is invariably going to be a small percentage as very little are given the opportunity to be aided with these programs.

With the rising numbers of the opioid crisis, the alternative practice of drug courts around federal and state criminal justice systems are also slowly on the rise. These practices are used to reduce recidivism and provide assistance for drug offenders struggling with substance abuse in jail. As its efficacy has been proven, drug courts and the drug court model has been proven to be successful in the aspects of treatment and cost efficiency. The “war against drugs” may not be certain, but new innovative strategies such as drug courts show promise on the future solutions in the criminal justice system.

The explosive growth of the use of opioid drugs in America has become so impactful in the past decade that it kills countless people every day. Although this crisis is seemingly getting worse, treatment programs and government legislations stand in stark reminder that there is possibility for change and solutions that can aid the epidemic in America. Through the intensive effect these drugs have on a person, it affects the crime, health risks, and economy felt by all aspects of the United States. Whether the epidemic should be prioritized lies in America’s hands.

1. Mumola CJ, Karberg JC. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs; 2006. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dudsfp04.pdf. Accessed May 11, 2017.

2. Sevigny, Eric L., et al. “Can Drug Courts Help to Reduce Prison and Jail Populations?” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 647, no. 1, May 2013, pp. 190–212., doi:10.1177/0002716213476258.

3.“Buprenorphine/Naloxone Versus Methadone for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence: A Review of Comparative Clinical Effectiveness, Cost-Effectiveness and Guidelines [Internet].” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27656728.

4. Abuse, National Institute on Drug. “Treatment of Opioid Use Disorder in the Criminal Justice System.” NIDA, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/medications-to-treat-opioid-addiction/treatment-opioid-use-disorder-in-criminal-justice-system 


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