The "Land of the Free" has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The US can become a much better place by rehabilitating drug addicts and potentially other nonviolent offenders.

Everyone can agree that having a criminal justice system is integral to our society.  However, the United States has been locking away people who need support and help, and it is preventing America from making much progress towards equality and compassion.  People are imprisoned for actions such as the consumption of illegal substances, like heroin, cocaine and even marijuana. In order to be more humanitarian, decrease the amount of prisoners, and create a better society, the U.S and other countries with similar policies should focus on rehabilitating people addicted to drugs over punishment.

People with drug addictions are not necessarily bad people; they have a mental illness and need the support and assistance of the rest of society. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Addiction changes the brain, disturbing the normal hierarchy of needs and desires.” Many people who use drugs turn to them because of various events in their life, like awful circumstances at home or anxiety and depression. It is their form of escape from reality. Trying to get away from a bad situation by turning to substance abuse should not land you two to ten years in prison, as can happen in states with stricter drug mandatory minimum sentences, according to “A combination of strict sentencing guidelines, budget shortfalls and a punitive philosophy of corrections has made today's prisons much more unpleasant--and much less likely to rehabilitate their inhabitants--than in the past. . If society can treat drug addicts with care and empathy rather than disdain and neglect, then society will be better off.

Many studies have been done that back up the validity of rehabilitation programs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states, “According to research that tracks individuals in treatment over extended periods, most people who get into and remain in treatment stop using drugs, decrease their criminal activity, and improve their occupational, social, and psychological functioning.” Other countries have statistical data to back this up as well, such as Norway. Norway uses a process known as “restorative justice” for criminals who commit nonviolent offenses. shows that the country has a very low incarceration rate of seventy four individuals per one hundred thousand people. Recidivism rates, or how often former prisoners return to jail, are also among the lowest in the world. “Scandinavian countries are often considered models of successful incarceration practices, particularly Norway which, at 20%, has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. Here, too, the focus is far more on rehabilitation and less on punishment.”  Evidence points to rehabilitation being a far more effective method of corrections over punishment for nonviolent offenses, which includes drug addicts.

There are people who will argue that punishment is necessary; what is the point of having laws if people are not punished for breaking them? Rehabilitation is not an enjoyable affair; it still restricts freedom and keeps you away from your old life. At the end of the day, it is more important to keep people out of prisons and as functioning members of society for both social and economic reasons. More workers means increased production, and less strain on society as a whole even if it means being more lenient with rules. It can also be argued that punishing drug addicts will protect the children and other individuals from exposure to those substances. That sentiment is misguided however. According to the National Institute of Justice, the United States has a recidivism rate of 76.6% over a period of five years. People imprisoned for drug offenses will get out of prison with the same problems they had when they entered, and still influence others. Recidivism rates are so high with a punishment mindset because criminals are released with no financial support and cannot find good jobs, leading them back to a life of crime. Criminals winding back up in prison also costs a significant amount of money over time. Rehabilitated drug addicts can also serve as an important learning resource for younger generations, and can advocate about the dangers of drugs and why they should be avoided. Yes, not all drug addicts can be successfully rehabilitated, and could remain a danger to society. But the majority can be, and it would still be worth the change on policy.

Drug addicts should not be damned to a perpetually unpleasant life because of their mental illness. Through rehabilitation, they can overcome their problems and live in normal society. They need help, care and empathy, not the shunning of others. The United States and other countries can become much healthier and more productive environments by following the lead of Scandinavian countries in regards to their imprisonment policies.  




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These responses were created by seniors in AP Language and Composition Class at Highland High School.

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