A disturbing statistic about modern American society is that we incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any other country in the world. About 2.3 million Americans are in prison, and yet the rate of crime in the U.S. has dropped. What is happening? Many experts would say it is the war on drugs that has led to such a huge prison population. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have led to the incarceration of millions of minor drug offenders, drug addicts and the mentally ill. But should we be treating these people as criminals or patients?
Addicts as Criminals
Some statistics show that as many as 65 percent of the incarcerated population is addicted to drugs. Instead of getting treatment—and only about 11 percent of these inmates get any kind of treatment—imprisoned addicts do time. They waste time and come out of prison without the necessary skills to be sober or to live a lifestyle that doesn’t include drugs and illicit activities. What addicts need is comprehensive and effective treatment. The main culprit in incarcerating so many addicts is the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Legislators had good intentions when passing the law. They wanted to take discretion in sentencing away from judges because there were huge discrepancies among similar cases. Unfortunately it led to a similar law in 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Judges are given little freedom to exercise leniency. Only in a couple of instances, such as cooperation with the government, can a judge reduce the minimum sentence. Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes was spurred by the crack epidemic of the 1980s. The drug was new and terrible and it led to a lot of crime, including violent crime. However, the inability of judges to exercise leniency, or to sentence minor offenders to treatment instead of time in prison, has led to unprecedented numbers of addicts in prison, most of whom committed non-violent crimes.
Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System
The mentally ill don’t fare much better when it comes to law enforcement and the court system. In many ways the issue is related to drug offenses. Many drug abusers and addicts also struggle with mental illness. Neither addiction nor mental illness is treated in prisoners to any great extent. In many cases, a mentally ill prisoner has had nothing to do with drugs but was arrested for a crime instead of being treated for a mental health condition. Police often arrest mentally ill people because they lack the training and education to recognize or to deal with someone struggling with a mental condition or psychosis. Resources for mental health education, training and preparation are severely lacking in law enforcement. The mentally ill who are arrested are more vulnerable than other inmates to police violence. It is estimated that half of people shot or killed by police have a mental health issue. Once in prison, the mentally ill, like drug addicts, are not usually treated. They are often the victims of abuse in prison because they act out, break the rules or disturb other inmates. The statistics and facts are clear: mental illness and drug addiction have been criminalized in this country. Instead of being arrested, these people need to be treated. Both mental illness and addiction are medical conditions that require medical care. Those suffering won’t find what they need in prison and they won’t get treatment until our system changes.