Are we solving a problem or creating one?

posted in: State of the World | 0

In a recent Time Magazine article, available here, the question is asked: Does teen drug rehab cure addiction or create it? The courage to ask this question and explore the possibilities have implications well beyond drug use and addiction. The question could also be asked: Does incarceration solve crime or create it?

Many of the arguments against group treatment for teen substance abuse are are the same arguments against the reliance upon incarceration as the primary or preferred crime reduction tool. The following is a fictionalized version of the Time article and a collage of the thousands of individuals I have known who have been trapped in the revolving door cycle of incarceration:

Rather than encouraging lawful behavior, Thomas says, his seven-week stint in the county jail helped trigger a decades-long descent into severe addiction and criminal behavior — from regular marijuana user to daily drinker to cocaine and methamphetamine addict. “It was [in jail] that they told me that I was a criminal, drug addict and an alcoholic,” says Thomas. “There was no turning back. The whole event solidified and created this notion in my own mind and in my social status. Who I was, was a criminal, an alcoholic and drug addict.”

In jail, Thomas met other addicts who regaled him with glamorized war stories about drugs he’d never tried and crimes he’d never considered.

In jail and prison, low risk offenders are housed with with hardened criminals. It tends to strengthen dysfunctional behavior by concentrating it, researchers say. The exposure can be especially dangerous for impressionable young people, those with mental illness, or those with developmental disorders. In academic terms, the problem is known as deviancy training.

In addition, researchers find, the harm caused by incarceration also comes from the degradation of positive bonds with family. It doesn’t help that the philosophy behind incarceration does not foster prosocial skill development. Part of the problem is that incarceration is not conducive to learning and applying accountable decision-making skills.

Private and government entities are funding collaborations and research to identify what works in reducing crime and implementing programs based upon these strategies. Incorporating these principles in evidence-based programs that are community based and community supported are growing in acceptance. However, many states continue to rely unnecessarily upon incarceration, despite being shown that it does not work.

The question is a valid one and worthy of further exploration.  After all, is it possible that in our quest to solve fundamental societal problems that we have lost sight of the objective and have become lost along the way?  I am not suggesting that we should scrap all of our prisons and jails, just like the author of the Time article is not suggesting that we stop using substance abuse treatment for teenagers.

What I am suggesting is that there is no one size fits all solution and that we must be willing, as a society, to take a look at what we are doing and refocus on the desired objective instead of continuing down the same path.  Because at the end of that path are the same dysfunctional results we have today.