Seven years ago I was in county jail anxiously awaiting the outcome of my criminal case. There was no thought of taking my case to trial. I had committed three counts of robbery in a 24-hour crack cocaine binge. I was already on probation for another robbery I had committed 18 months prior. I accepted a plea agreement of 15 years with parole eligibility after serving one-quarter of my sentence. When I tell fellow addicts about the crimes I committed in that desperate state, they invariable say, “Yep. I get it.”
Cocaine and other stimulants are not only extremely addictive, they alter the brain.[i] Actual lesions are observed in the brains of cocaine abusers, meaning that drug use literally causes brain damage. The damage impairs decision making even during periods of abstinence, making it extraordinarily difficult to remain drug free long enough for the brain to heal.
I relapsed frequently. I was also under psychiatric care for depression and anxiety at the same time, which would suggest the need for longer-term residential treatment and extended aftercare in a supportive environment.[ii] Instead, I was placed in a punitive halfway house in a neighborhood with high levels of drug activity. Every day presented an agonizing struggle to ignore the oppressive urge to find more crack. The obsessions to use were so powerful that I’d enter into periodic fugue states, unconsciously moving through the day as memories and fantasies of crack cocaine seized my present awareness.
When I finally relapsed, my only thought was to find more crack. In that state, I would have done anything to score another hit. I committed robbery to get more drugs. This is what a drug crime looks like.
In criminal justice reform, people often talk of “low-level drug offenders.” I never met a “low-level drug offender” while in prison. In state prison, only 16 percent of the population is incarcerated for drug offenses. Most of the “drug offenders” I met were in prison for theft, burglary, or robbery. These are crimes that undoubtedly warrant a consequence, but the people arrested for these crimes remain treatable.
There is no research that supports the notion that long-term incarceration is a form of rehabilitation.
Researchers have studied drug addiction treatment so extensively, that they can affirmatively state: Treatment Works. The National Institute of Drug Abuse even established principles of effective treatment.[iii] Therefore, when one talks of rehabilitation for someone convicted of a drug-related offense, the proper response is treatment, not more time in prison.
Unfortunately, judges and prosecutors have little confidence in treatment. In many counties in Texas, the vast majority of felony convictions result in prison or state jail sentences, not community supervision. While Texas has a long way to go in terms of making evidence-based treatment more widely available, people on community supervision at least have greater access to treatment than those in prison.
In prison, pre-release treatment can only be accessed through a favorable vote of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. You read that correctly: one can only get treatment in prison after serving the minimum sentence imposed by the court, and only then by a vote of non-clinicians. Sadly, the Parole Board continues to view parole denial as a tool for rehabilitation. In Texas, nearly 85% of those eligible for parole will be released within five years of initial parole eligibility; however, the Board only approves about 35% of those eligible every year.
This means that the Parole Board spends $835 million each year to keep about 44,000 people in prison beyond their minimum sentence, most of whom would have benefited from treatment. In true Texas fashion, many of those people are denied parole because of a history of drug use. Again, you read that correctly:
In Texas, the Parole Board can deny someone treatment because the individual has a history of drug abuse.
Just as I had to understand my problem before I could truly grasp recovery, Texas has to understand that addiction is at root of a significant proportion of crimes committed in the state. Knowing that incarceration will not address the problem, we must invest our limited resources in what does work. Treatment, housing, and aftercare are effective strategies.
Treatment does not preclude a consequence for serious crimes, but thinking of incarceration as a form of rehabilitation is the very definition of insanity.
[i] Fuchs, Rita A., et al, “Differential Involvement of Orbitofrontal Cortex Subregions in Conditioned Cue-Induced and Cocaine-Primed Reinstatement of Cocaine Seeking in Rats,” The Journal of Neuroscience, July, 21, 2004, http://www.jneurosci.org/content/24/29/6600.full.pdf.
[ii] National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, “Treating cocaine/crack dependence,”
[iii] National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition,” http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment.