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In the past, most people saw addiction as a legal and moral issue. Now, researchers understand that addiction is a mental health condition and that some people are more vulnerable to it than others.

Still, drug abuse remains one of the most common reasons for arrest in the United States. Several addiction treatment centers have called for drug rehabilitation in prisons. Now that experts understand how addiction works, they have demonstrated why substance abuse treatment benefits prisoners and society as a whole.

Addressing Inmate Needs

Among people serving prison time, a large percentage meet the criteria for substance abuse disorders. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that while numbers are difficult to measure, up to 65% of prison inmates may have an addiction. NIDA’s criminal justice research also states that an additional 20% committed their crimes while under the influence.

Addiction treatment is a very pressing need among prison communities. By adding drug and alcohol rehab to prison environments, program leaders can meet that need.

Lower Recidivism Rates

The United States has a high recidivism rate, which means that many people return to jail shortly after being released. Within three years of leaving prison, two-thirds of former inmates will be arrested again, and half will be re-incarcerated.

However, drug rehabilitation reduces recidivism. Several independent studies show that when prisoners receive addiction treatment, they are far less likely to be arrested a second time. Recidivism rates become especially low when treatment includes aftercare, or continued therapy after jail.


Some have opposed prison rehab on the basis of cost. However, research shows that addiction treatment is a cost-effective solution. Overall, incarceration comes with a high economic cost. The costs of incarceration include:

  • lost productivity
  • additional crime costs
  • future victimization costs
  • participant wage loss
  • cost of housing and feeding inmates
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Substance abuse treatment reduces all of those costs by reducing prison time.

General Benefits of Addiction Treatment

Of course, people in prison can also reap the same benefits from addiction treatment that the non-incarcerated population can experience. For example, substance abuse treatment often addresses co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and depression.

For incarcerated people, this treatment may be especially important. Overall, people in prison have higher rates of mental health struggles than people in the general population. By addressing co-occurring disorders, addiction treatment can help inmates establish healthier lives and readjust to life after prison.

Substance abuse treatment provides other benefits, too. Those benefits include:

  • establishing a sense of community
  • discovering healthy coping skills
  • becoming more self-aware
  • accessing different types of therapy
  • gaining a sense of structure and safety

Rehab as a Prison Alternative

Some experts have called for rehab as an alternative to prison time. If a person is arrested for a drug-related crime, they argue, that person should have the choice of treatment instead of jail. Some drug courts have already implemented this option with court-ordered rehab.

When rehab replaces prison time, it can provide two major benefits. First, while prison time only addresses the crime itself, rehab addresses the root cause. Because addiction is a mental illness, treatment can provide better long-term outcomes than jail.

Second, this option can reduce overcrowding in prisons. The United States accounts for 5% of the global population and a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Rehabilitation could lower those prison numbers.

The Future of Criminal Justice

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Researchers are still studying the benefits of addiction treatment and ways to reduce crime. So far, these studies support drug and alcohol abuse treatment for prisoners. Adding addiction treatment to prison programs will take time, but that time will make a difference. As more courts and prisons implement these practices, we may see many societal improvements.