Recognizing Addiction as a Disease in the Criminal Justice System

Our society’s view on crime tends to focus on incarceration rather than rehabilitation. Why is that the case? Additionally, the focus is largely on retribution rather than finding the root causes of a particular crime. We prioritize policies and structures that are tough on crime, but there is a lack of policies that address the drug subculture that exists within the criminal justice system. At the forefront of the criminal justice system is the goal of protecting the public’s general welfare. Nevertheless, aren’t nonviolent drug offenders part of that population? If so, have we failed them in a sense?

The opioid epidemic has affected the entire country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that the number of people who died from a drug overdose in 2021 was over six times the number in 1999. The number of drug overdose deaths increased by more than 16% from 2020 to 2021 (2023). These staggering numbers show that drug usage in our country is only getting worse as the years progress. As it relates to incarceration rates, those who suffered from addiction and committed crimes relating to drugs or alcohol made up 85% of the nation’s prison population (Rousseau, 2024). That means the majority of our incarcerated population has committed their crimes due to their disease of addiction. When you think of this population behind bars who are suffering from addiction, keep in mind that being behind bars does not aid the individual in recovery, either, as many inmates still find ways to smuggle substances into prisons (Rousseau, 2024). Even while incarcerated, without being given the proper treatment, those suffering will go to extreme lengths to fuel their addiction because the pain of withdrawals is too intense. 

To put it quite bluntly, those who have committed offenses related to drugs get very little help, if any, while incarcerated. Unfortunately, for over 30 years now, conservative policies have dominated how CJ professionals approach people with an addiction within the criminal justice system. These conservative policies have most notably included the use of mandatory minimum laws. Still, critics argue that these laws do nothing but target minority populations and have only contributed to the issue of overcrowding in U.S. prisons (Rousseau, 2024). There are also exceptionally high rates of recidivism for drug-related offenses. The National Library for Medicine states that illegal drug use increases the likelihood of continued involvement in criminal activity, with high rates of relapse and recidivism found among drug-involved offenders; 68% of drug offenders are rearrested within three years of release from prison (Belenko et al., 2013). Most of those who fall into this pattern come from marginalized communities and have no way of receiving any treatment for their struggles. 

Yet, there is still scrutiny surrounding non-violent drug offenses. Instead of formulating new policies that would help to ensure that these individuals receive adequate treatment to not only be functioning healthy members of society but while doing so, this would work towards improving the recidivism rates in this country and help to alleviate the opioid epidemic. It should be a goal to move towards a system that recognizes addiction as a disease rather than a choice. In doing so, we can aim towards providing these individuals with the necessary tools and resources to fight their disease. 

I will never condone crime or violence in any way. This post is, in essence, not to perpetuate a debate regarding dismantling the criminal justice system and its structure but rather to improve it while giving these individuals who suffer from the disease of addiction a second chance at life. Creating a unified approach within our system so those from the lowest and highest levels are educated on addiction and can come from a viewpoint that is more sustainable to view it as a disease. 


Belenko, S., Hiller, M., & Hamilton, L. (2013). Treating substance use disorders in the criminal justice system. National Library for Medicine. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, August 8). Understanding the opioid overdose epidemic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Chapter 55 Data Visualization. The Massachusetts Opioid Epidemic. (2016). 

Rousseau, D. (2024). Module 2 Lecture Notes: Thinking Like a Forensic Psychologist. Boston University. 

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One comment

  1. Yes! As someone who works with addicts it is incredibly sad to see people who are opiate addicted who began with prescribed drugs. They get hooked on them often times not knowing they might be predisposed to addiction. This trickles into your argument as they often seek out illicit substances when they can’t get the same high or can’t get a prescription anymore.

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