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Ending the cycle of recidivism: Rehabilitating non-violent drug offenders

Can rehab programs reduce non-violent drug offender recidivism?


Even without drug rehabilitation programs, it can be extremely costly to provide general healthcare to inmates with a history of substance abuse.

Photo/In Public Safety

By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety

Prison time is the price of most crimes in America, but it is not the only way to keep our communities safe. When it comes to non-violent drug offenders, many signs indicate that rehabilitation programs are an effective solution to reduce recidivism.

A study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that drug offenders were the second most likely group to reoffend after property offenders; 76.9 percent of drug offenders released in 2005 were rearrested within five years, nearly half of those within the first year of release.

“Obviously what we’re doing isn’t working or we’d see greater reduction in recidivism rates and we wouldn’t see a lot of these people going through the same issues,” said Kelli Callahan, a criminal justice faculty member at American Military University. Callahan has spent 10 years working in corrections, including two years in a mental health and treatment unit within a correctional facility in the state of Washington.

“Our inclination in corrections is to punish and that typically comes in the form of incarceration,” she said. “When individuals are in prison, they’re not going to get the same kind of ongoing rehabilitation needed to overcome their drug dependencies.”

The Cost of Incarcerating Non-Violent Drug Offenders

Funding for internal drug rehabilitation treatment programs remains a challenge and those institutions that do provide this service face significant obstacles. Not only are these programs expensive, but they do little to prevent drug offenders from returning to the same addictions and patterns of criminal behavior when they are released.

Even without drug rehabilitation programs, it can be extremely costly to provide general healthcare to inmates with a history of substance abuse. On top of addiction and mental health issues, it is not uncommon for these inmates to have chronic diseases like hepatitis, heart disease, and diabetes.

“Some offenders may come to prison with compromised immune systems and it may be difficult for them to get well when communicable illnesses are passed around the facility,” said Callahan. “As such, the financial toll associated with prison healthcare remains a constant area of concern.”

It is also worth considering the outcome of putting non-violent drug offenders into harsh, anti-social prison environments. It often means exposing low-risk individuals with no history of violence to the influence of much more dangerous inmates, including those who have committed violent or sexual crimes.

“At best they’re sitting idle, sometimes for years,” said Callahan. “They may not choose to participate in valuable programming and, conversely, may learn new ways to engage in criminality.”

What Makes a Rehabilitative Approach Effective?

Instead, Callahan suggests that corrections institutions focus on rehabilitating non-violent drug offenders outside of prison walls where they can work, complete out-patient treatment, and be closer to their support systems. Such community corrections programs have a much higher chance of reintegrating non-violent drug offenders back into a productive role in society.

“By placing them back out into the communities, they’re forced to be self-sufficient so the cost of their housing, food and healthcare isn’t falling on the taxpayers,” said Callahan.

She makes it clear however, that a rehabilitative approach does not mean a more lenient approach nor one that puts the community at risk. Instead, offenders are entered into a structured program with a longer period of supervision, as opposed to simply returning to their previous lifestyle after serving their time.

In addition to putting these offenders on probation or parole, community corrections programs should include mandatory treatment or rehabilitative sessions and a psychological counselling component.

“There are ways we can have these individuals engage with more treatment options, but still hold them accountable,” said Callahan. “There’s the incentive for them to participate if they can remain with their families and keep their jobs.”

Investing in the Long-Term Benefits of Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation is about putting an end to the cycle of recidivism that will otherwise continue to place the burden back on the corrections system and on American taxpayers. Anti-drug efforts currently cost the U.S. more than $50 billion a year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Although implementing a community corrections program might be expensive at the onset, it will ultimately be more cost-effective than incarceration, explained Callahan, especially when taking into account the effect rehabilitation will have on recidivism.

“The trick is getting the initial funding for these programs to get them going,” she said. “We need to recognize that there’s an issue and commit to devoting time, effort, and money into evidence-based practices.”

Approximately 50 percent of state prisoners meet the criteria for a diagnosis of drug abuse or dependence; however, only 10 percent of prisoners receive drug treatment.

The criminal justice system needs to implement a new strategy to help non-violent drug offenders overcome their substance abuse issues because the current system of incarcerating them – with little to no rehabilitation – just isn’t sustainable.

“Unfortunately there’s a pervasive stereotype that drug offenders are beyond reproach, that they’re untreatable,” said Callahan. “But it’s not true. I think in a lot of ways it’s our current system that sets them up for failure.”

About the Author: Jinnie Chua is the assistant editor at In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She graduated from New York University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Sociology. At In Public Safety, Jinnie covers issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. She can be reached at For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

In Public Safety is an American Military University (AMU) sponsored blog that features analysis and commentary on issues relating to law enforcement, emergency management, fire services and national intelligence. This blog features in-depth discussions authored by leading experts with decades of experience in their field.