Treatment: Because No Life is Disposable

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

In his State of the State address last week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie surprised many by outlining his plans to mandate treatment for non-violent drug offenders. “No life is disposable…every one of God’s creations can be redeemed,” Christie declared, to applause from Republicans and Democrats alike. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Christie is right; it’s about time more states recognized that low-level drug users are often victims (of dealers, drug traffickers, and other criminals) who need help to fight their addictions. As we’ve said before, incarceration does the opposite of what we want to accomplish—it turns those nonviolent users into criminals. Treatment, on the other hand, provides the tools necessary to start and sustain a new life in recovery. It offers that second chance that everyone deserves.

We know that treatment is cost-effective, and that every dollar spent on treatment returns $12.00 or more in reduced incarceration and health care costs. Governor Christie’s plan is the right idea—not just fiscally, but on a human level as well. Many people who turn to drugs have had tragic life events or have felt alienated or abandoned in some way; bad things may have happened to them, but they’re not bad people. It’s important that we as a society recognize this, and that we remove any existing barriers that might prevent people from getting the help they need.

Even violent offenders (those who may be a danger to society and therefore unsuited for a community-based program) deserve treatment. We must recognize the necessity of providing treatment in prison as well as through outside programs. Without substance abuse education, counseling, and the development of healthy coping skills, these individuals may only become more violent. So let’s not forget about in-prison treatment programs—many violent offenders have lost their way and are unlikely to recover without this type of help.

Obviously, the criminal justice system needs to give careful consideration to who exactly would benefit from treatment—we can’t just assume that all nonviolent drug offenders are addicts. But while it’s true that addicts can commit crimes, it’s also true that criminals can use drugs. And with 80 percent of all state prisoners reporting a history of substance abuse, it’s certainly worthwhile to implement a screening and assessment process that will determine the best route for each individual.

We understand that state treatment centers are crowded, and that drug treatment advocates want to prioritize funding for individuals who are self-referred, not court-mandated. But coming through the criminal justice system doesn’t make someone “less worthy” of treatment. True, very few people who enter treatment are immediately glad they did—but research has shown that people who are mandated to treatment do just as well as those who are not. Treatment motivates countless individuals to make lasting and positive changes in their lives.

Our country loses much money and many lives to addiction each day. While it may seem economically or politically difficult for states to invest in treatment, in reality it costs substantially more if they don’t. It’s in all of our best interests to invest in treatment, both for those who seek it on their own and for those mandated by the criminal justice system. Treatment shouldn’t merely be accessible for one group or another; it should be available to everyone and anyone. I hope that other states will follow Governor Christie’s leadership and recognize that treatment is not a frivolity—it’s a necessity.

Howard P. Meitiner
President and Chief Executive Officer
Phoenix House

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  • Philip Pisciotta

    I agree that people are not bad they just make bad choices in life. Everyone deserves a second chance.

  • This is a good opinion piece. It is clear to many of us that treatment makes more sense than prison. What boggles the mind is despite the humanity, compassion and cost effectiveness of treatment as an alternative to prison for non-violent drug addicts, the shift in resources doesn’t happen. The Rand study quoted about cost effectiveness, “every dollar spent on treatment….” was conducted more than a dozen years ago and still no change. Yes, every once in a while an enlightened governor chooses to emphasize treatment instead of prison but on a federal level we still spend more than four times of our drug budget on interdiction, law enforcement and prisons than we do on reducing the demand for drugs in the United States. I would like to see Phoenix House, the largest drug treatment organization in the world, and my alma mater, provide some leadership in this area. Our last three presidents all used drugs and by the grace of God were never busted. Still they support policies and laws that destroy lives for same behaviors they indulged. The question is how do we get them to do what they know is right?

  • Unfortunately, many people still don’t believe addiction is a disease or that treatment works. Polls show, however, that the more people understand addiction has a biological basis, the more they support treatment. So it’s incumbent on those involved in recovery to re-inforce that addicts suffer from an illness: that the brains of addicts are physiologically different than non-addicts; those brain changes result in addict behavior; and treatment can teach addicts how to manage the disease one day at a time.

    For a website that analyzes the addict experience through the prism of addiction science(in accessible English), please check out

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