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Poor Substance Abusers Imprisoned En Masse Without Treatment

More than two-thirds of U.S. jail, prisoners in 2002 were found to be dependent on drugs or alcohol or to abuse them. But many never get the help they need, a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reveals.
According to the July 2005 report, Substance Dependence, Abuse, and Treatment of Jail Inmates, 2002, 68% of jail prisoners met substance abuse or dependence criteria as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition. Even more striking, at least 85% of convicted jail prisoners met the criteria.

Despite these alarming numbers, more than one-third of all jail prisoners who met the criteria never participated in substance abuse treatment or other alcohol or drug programs. What's more, over half (53%) of jail prisoners had never received treatment or participated in other substance abuse programs while under correctional supervision.

The report, based on interviews conducted with 6,982 prisoners at 417 jails, revealed a number of other important trends as well. For instance, race and age were factors in the rate of substance dependence or abuse. White prisoners had the highest rate (78%), compared to blacks (64%), and Hispanics (59%). Jail prisoners between ages 25 and 44 were also more likely to dependent on or to abuse substances (70%), while those age 55 or older had the lowest rate (50%). The prevalence of dependence or abuse between men and women was roughly equal at 68% and 69%, respectively.
Family background also played a role. More than 1 in 5 jail prisoners who were diagnosed with substance dependence or abuse claimed to have been physically or sexually abused in the past, compared with 1 in 8 for other jail prisoners. Moreover, prisoners who were dependent on or abused substances were more likely (50%) than other prisoners (38%) to have had a family member who had been imprisoned.

Substance dependent or abusive prisoners were also more likely to have had past trouble with the law. While 80% had previously been imprisoned or placed on probation, the rate was only 60% for other prisoners. In addition, more than half of these prisoners (47%) had had three or more prior sentences to probation or imprisonment--nearly twice the rate of other jail prisoners (22%).

Among the various offenses, jail prisoners charged with drug and property offenses were most likely to be dependent on or to abuse substances or alcohol. Those charged with burglary had the highest rate (85%), followed by driving while intoxicated/under the influence (81%), weapons charges (79%), and drug possession (75%).

The study further found that those on probation or parole were more likely to receive treatment or to participate in a program for substance dependence or abuse than those imprisoned. Though more than 1 in 4 dependent prisoners received treatment while in the community; just 1 in 5 had received treatment while imprisoned.

Racial disparities were also seen in treatment rates. While 40% of white prisoners who met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse received treatment under correctional supervision, only 30% of black and Hispanics received such treatment. White prisoners (23%) were also nearly twice as likely as Hispanic prisoners (12%) to have received treatment in prison or jail.

Based on these findings, it seems clear the focus of government intervention should be on substance abuse awareness campaigns and treatment programs, rather than massive imprisonment. Get a copy of the report, NCJ 209588, online at or by writing NCJRS, P.O. Box 6000, Rockville, Maryland 20849-6000.

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