why rehab is better than jail

If you’re facing serious legal consequences because of drugs and alcohol, and you’re given an opportunity to get help at a substance abuse treatment facility instead of serving time, you may be wondering why rehab is better than jail.

Aside from the obvious — you’re not behind bars, first and foremost — the simple answer is this: Being locked up doesn’t address your problem. It’s punishment for whatever law you broke while being under the influence, but you won’t get the help you need to address your struggles with drugs and alcohol that have led to an arrest in the first place.

As Wayne Lipton, writing for the Huffington Post, put it: “We need treatment alternatives to jail time, with access to adequate drug rehabs as sentencing. We can punish people for the crimes committed to get the drugs, but that’s not the solution for treating the mental illness associated with the offenses.”

And make no mistake: If you qualify as an addict or an alcoholic (and let’s face it; people who don’t have drinking or drug problems are rarely arrested for crimes committed while under the influence of those substances), you’re ill, according to professional medical organizations and institutions like the Mayo Clinic:

  • The Mayo Clinic on alcohol addiction: “Alcohol use disorder (which includes a level that's sometimes called alcoholism) is a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking.”
  • The Mayo Clinic on drug addiction: “Drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a disease that affects a person's brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication … when you're addicted, you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes.”

The Imbalance of Punishment vs. Treatment

why rehab is better than jailThat’s the No. 1 reason why rehab is better than jail: You’re a sick person who needs to get better, not a “bad” person who needs to be punished. That’s not to say that a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder is a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” If you’ve committed a crime, you’ll still be expected to pay restitution in both the financial and physical sense. But without treatment for those disorders, you’re not addressing the root cause of the problem.

If you find yourself in the dilemma of asking why rehab is better than jail, know this: You’re not alone. According to the nonprofit website Drug Policy Facts, law enforcement made 1,558,862 drug arrests in 2019 — 86.7% of (1,351,533) of which were for “mere possession of a controlled substance. Only 13.3% (207,329) were for the sale or manufacturing of a drug. Further, 35% of drug arrests in 2019 were for marijuana offenses … an estimated 500,395, or 32.1% of all drug arrests, were for marijuana possession alone.

Those numbers seem to reinforce a point by Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union: “For decades, this country has been waging a failed war on drugs. Drug use hasn't gone down. Drugs are just as available as they used to be. Instead of solving our drug problem, we've become a society that seemingly disregards millions of lives.”

It's difficult to say how many of those arrested actually needed drug and alcohol treatment to address a problem, and how many of them received an opportunity to get that treatment through court-ordered or optional judicial diversion programs. But one thing we do know is that of the estimated number of Americans who needed treatment in 2019, less than 20 percent actually received it, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: “Among people aged 12 or older in 2019, 7.8 percent (or 21.6 million people) needed substance use treatment in the past year.” However, the report continues, only “1.5 percent (or 4.2 million people) received any substance use treatment in the past year.”

Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, however, a trend emerged in the U.S. judicial system to rectify this situation. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are now more than 3,000 drug court programs across the United States, which “employ a program designed to reduce drug use relapse and criminal recidivism among defendants and offenders through a variety of services. These services include risk and needs assessment, judicial interaction, monitoring and supervision, graduated sanctions and incentives, treatment and various rehabilitation services.”

In addition, many court officials, from district attorneys to judges at various levels of the justice system, welcome efforts by those charged with drug or alcohol offenses to seek treatment on their own. And for good reason, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse points out: “Scientific research since the mid-1970s shows that treatment of those with (substance use disorders) in the criminal justice system can change their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors toward drug use; avoid relapse; and successfully remove themselves from a life of substance use and crime.”

Why Rehab Is Better Than Jail: A Chance to Get Better

Perhaps the most important reason why rehab is better than jail is that addicts and alcoholics in jail, unless they take part in some type of recovery program during incarceration, are returned to their communities without any sort of support system that encourages them to remain abstinent. They may have been abstinent while behind bars (and in some facilities, even that’s not guaranteed), but they don’t how to stay sober once they’re released, which means their chances for recidivism remain high.

Effective drug and alcohol treatment can change all of that. First and foremost, as researchers point out in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the treatment provided at a comprehensive treatment facility can educate addicted individuals about the nature of a problem that has steered them down a path of poor choices — including those that lead to arrests and legal charges — for months or even years: “Such individuals may become frustrated when their efforts to control their own drug use are unsuccessful, and even with treatment many become frustrated with what is often a slow and tenuous recovery process. The neurobiology of the brain can help the addicted individual put this disease into a more understandable context and thereby facilitate effective treatment.”

According to the NIDA, a number of recommended approaches provided in a treatment setting demonstrate why rehab is better than jail:

And, as the NIDA points out, the reason why rehab is better than jail extends beyond just the individual facing a choice between the two. It pays dividends to the communities to which they owe restitution as well: “A report from the National Drug Intelligence Center estimated that the cost to society for drug use was $193 billion in 2007, a substantial portion of which — $ 113 billion — was associated with drug related crime, including criminal justice system costs and costs borne by victims of crime. The same report showed that the cost of treating drug use (including health costs, hospitalizations, and government specialty treatment) was estimated to be $14.6 billion, a fraction of these overall societal costs.”

In the end, the reason why rehab is better than jail is fairly clear: It gives those with a drug or alcohol problem, who have run afoul of the law, an opportunity to address those problems. In the end, whether they end up having to serve jail time or not, the experience of receiving drug and alcohol treatment for a legitimate illness that could eventually prove fatal isn’t just a smart choice — it’s one that can pay long-term and positive life-changing dividends.