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Rehabilitation vs. Incarceration

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

December 7, 2023

Table of Contents

Rehabilitation vs incarceration statistics show that those who get help for addiction at a quality rehab center are better off than those in a prison or jail cell.

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Although the debate about rehabilitation vs incarceration for drug-related crimes simmers away, it’s now almost universally accepted that rehabilitation is the most effective, most humane, and most cost-effective approach.

When someone with alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder enters a treatment facility, they can engage with holistic treatment addressing their body, mind, and spirit, as well as evidence-based treatments for addiction. This creates the most stable foundation for sustained recovery.

Incarceration, by contrast, is primarily punitive rather than rehabilitative. While those with substance use disorders will have access to treatment, this will not be comparable to the treatment delivered in a residential rehab center. The core purpose of incarceration is to punish someone for breaking laws rather than ensuring they become a productive and functioning member of society upon release.

Where in rehab, you would be surrounded by others engaging with addiction treatment, incarcerated addicts are surrounded by criminals in an often hostile environment that’s certainly not conducive to addiction recovery.

So, we find ourselves in the strange situation where most people concede that those who commit drug-related crimes need punishment in the form of jail time, incarceration does nothing to deal with the root cause of alcohol abuse or drug addiction.

To kickstart today’s sweeping view of rehabilitation vs incarceration for addiction treatment, some raw stats.

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That said, you need help with an addiction problem, please give our team a call immediately.

Rehabilitation vs. Incarceration – The Facts

The issue of whether to incarcerate or rehabilitate those convicted of drug-related crime is nuanced, and in many ways subjective. We feel it’s wise to get started with an objective look at what the data shows.

Statistical Lens

We’ll emphasize the end result of first rehabilitation and then incarceration before we dive down into the reasons for addicts committing crimes in more depth.

Drug Treatment Statistics

The following statistics concerning the treatment of drug addiction is sourced from SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) in the form of the annual NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health) from back in 2009.

  • Based on this data, 23.5 million over-12s required treatment for alcohol use disorder to substance use disorder. This translates to 9% of the population
  • Of this number, only 2.6 million people sought and obtained treatment at a specialized treatment center – only 11% of those who needed treatment actually received treatment
  • According to SAMHSA’s Treatment Episode Data Set, 2008 saw 1.8 million people admitted to treatment centers for alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder
  • Of this number, 41% of admissions involved alcohol abuse. 20% of all drug-related admissions were due to heroin and other opiates. Marijuana-related admissions came a close second, accounting for 17% of all drug-related admissions in 2008

While most people who engage with addiction treatment experience favorable outcomes, it seems the problem is getting them into treatment in the first place. 

The same cannot be said for the rapidly swelling jail population, though.

Incarceration Statistics

Some sobering statistics on incarceration next.

  • Someone is arrested every 25 seconds for drug possession in the United States. The total number of arrests for drug possession has tripled in the US since 1980. By 2015, this had peaked at 1.3 million annual arrests for drug possession, amounting to six times the total number of arrests for drug sales
  • Of all those incarcerated, 20% of the prison population is serving time for drug charges. Over 1 million more adults are on parole and probation for drug-related offenses
  • Overdose is the leading cause of death among those recently released from jail. In the first fortnight after release, ex-inmates are 13 times more likely than those in the general population to die
  • When people are incarcerated for drug-related offenses, this has been shown to have little effect on rates of substance misuse
  • Paradoxically, incarceration also does little to improve public safety. Although crime rates have been trending downward since 1990, researchers attribute 75% to 100% of these reductions to factors beyond incarceration

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Why Do Most Addicts Commit Crimes? Is it Really Because of Drugs?

When most people start considering the way in which drugs and crime are interrelated, they typically think of people dependent on drugs like heroin or crack cocaine committing crime on buy drugs. Common street-level crimes of this order include:

  • Burglary
  • Theft
  • Fraud
  • Shoplifting

It is believed that between 30% and 50% of all acquisitive crime is related to illegal drug abuse.

Beyond this, though, drugs and crime are linked in more ways than you first imagine.

Here are some common legal issues stemming from the abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol:

  • Drug possession
  • Drug sales
  • Violent offenses committed under the influence of drink or drugs
  • Assaults, domestic assaults, manslaughters, and murders where substances are involved
  • Driving offenses committed under the influence of drink or drugs
  • Violence between drug dealers

Differences between Rehabilitation and Incarceration

For those with substance use disorders, incarceration does little to address or support this issue. In one important sense, jail only serves as an extended time-out, before the person is released directly back into the same environment, with no additional tools at their disposal to resist the temptations in their path.

Some jails offer substance abuse treatment programs, but they don’t come close to matching the quality of care delivered in dedicated alcohol and drug addiction rehab facilities. The entire purpose of rehab is to equip people with the right toolbox for sustained recovery. The same input is impossible to achieve in a prison setting.

Fight Addiction With Rehab VS Jail


Not only is rehab a more effective option for addiction recovery, it’s also the much less damaging route to your overall life and wellbeing. 


When you do jail time for a drug offense or public intoxication, etc., this offense is now on your permanent record. When someone goes to jail for an extended period of time, they typically can lose their job. Compound this with now not being able to pass a background check, and the difficulties of finding a job in a competitive work environment becomes far more difficult. 


Not only can choosing to attend rehab keep you from accruing a criminal record, many rehabs also offer powerful vocational development programs. With these programs, you’ll have access to a personal case manager who is in your corner, providing the resources you need to find a new job and thrive in your career. 


With all of the tools provided by a rehab center, you’ll leave with an excellent tool set to not only overcome addiction, but improve your mental health, career, and support system as well. Walking out of jail after you’ve done your time, by contrast, lends you little to no opportunity and is often unfortunately a step backward, and can hinder you in the long run. There is also the lack of financial resources in many cases because the incarcerated person was not making more than prison wages for the time they were in jail. The abundance of new issues this can create can be a huge trigger for many people to start using again, and repeat the cycle all over. 

Treat trauma

According to the World Health Organization’s information sheet on mental health and prisons:

  •   Prisons are not good for mental health due to violence, overcrowding, privacy issues, an absence of worthwhile activity, enforced solitude, isolation, insecurity about future prospects, lack of health services
  •   There is an increased risk of suicide, especially when related to depression, among those incarcerated

Food options

Most people addicted to drink or drugs are suffering from nutritional deficiencies of some sort.

A rehab center will offer advice on nutrition, and, in the case of residential rehab, meals will be provided.

The food in jail will not be designed to support the systems of those in recovery from addiction, and the choice of food will be limited and not of the highest quality.


No one would reasonably argue that people who are found guilty of opiate trafficking do not deserve prison time. There are many existing laws that provide strict punishments for those found guilty of these drug-related crimes. What most people don’t know is that most drug offenders sent to jail are not found guilty of trafficking. In fact, 80% of convictions related to drug-related crimes are for possession.

In many instances, mandatory sentences are used. This means the judge has no flexibility when determining how to sentence a person accused of this type of crime. A guilty verdict means a judge is required to sentence an offender to a minimum stay in a prison.

Become a Better Person

Rehabilitation is in all senses about becoming a better person.

Whatever the rehabilitative component of jail time, on the other hand, it’s up for debate how many people leave prison a better person than when they first entered.

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The Cost of Rehabilitation vs Incarceration

Overall, drug rehab instead of incarceration could save billions of dollars.

Consider the following:

  • Outpatient drug rehab is not as expensive as incarceration
  • Recovering addicts typically commit fewer costly crimes. They also tend to be arrested less often
  • Healthcare reforms are lowering the financial barrier to entry of addiction treatment
  • Falling crime rates and fewer arrests will lead to reduced law enforcement and court costs
  • If only 10% of drug offenders were treated for addiction instead of being incarcerated, this could save $4.8 billion annually

Why is Rehab Better Than Jail?

Assuming addiction is a disease, those suffering from that disease should be treated with compassion.

Moreover, think of rehab as a more proactive solution than jail. Going to an addiction treatment program, can be a difficult decision to make but will ultimately help you stay out of jail or prison for other problems. Whether those be drug possession charges, DUI, or other criminal charges related to drugs and alcohol you can avoid getting into these predicaments by getting sober initially.

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Choose Rehabilitation vs. Prison at Renaissance Recovery

If you’re struggling with addiction to alcohol, prescription medication, or illicit drugs, take action before you end up in legal trouble.

Our evidence-based outpatient treatment programs can help you address alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder without the expense or the inconvenience of residential rehab.

With a combination of medication-assisted treatment and psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), you can beat addiction before you end up running into legal trouble, or behind bars.

All you need to do to get started is reach out to the friendly Renaissance admissions team today at 866.330.9449 and learn more about our Orange County rehab.


Offering addicts a chance to deal with their illness and heal makes more sense than packing them off to jail. If we accept the argument that addiction is a disease, it should be treated by society in that way. Why spend so much time and money punishing people who are sick after they’re arrested? We should treat them for their disease instead. We don’t penalize people living with other medical conditions in the same way.

Repeat offenders and people caught distributing and trafficking drugs should be punished accordingly. But, an offender caught with a small amount of the drug for personal use is probably a prime candidate for treatment rather than prison. Most current laws don’t offer anyone that opportunity. An inpatient rehab facility is a far better environment for addicts in recovery. In rehab, clients will have a structured schedule, yet still have much more personal freedom than afforded inside jail.

The day will be divided into slots for therapy, counseling sessions, 12-step program meetings, meals, recreation, and free time. There will be a set time when clients are expected to be in their rooms at night.

The cost of rehab varies depending on the amenities and the location. The scope and nature of the treatment program will also impact the cost. Basic residential rehab costs from $2000 to $7500 for a 30-day program. The cost at most standard centers is more like $10,000 to $20,000 for a month. Upscale rehabs cost north of $25,000 monthly. You can reduce these costs substantially by considering outpatient addiction treatment. With IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs), you’ll benefit from broadly similar services to those in inpatient rehab, but at a fraction of the cost. Outpatient treatment will also typically be covered by your health insurance.

You should first ask friends and family for recommendations. Search online for rehabs near you. Shortcut your search by reaching out to Renaissance Recovery Center here in Orange County at 866.330.9449.

Whether or not someone deserves to be punished for breaking the law is not the real issue. What is more pertinent is whether someone who commits a crime purely because of drug addiction receives a proportional punishment by being thrown in with a community of often violent criminals without the right support in place for addiction treatment. The alternative of mandatory addiction treatment would certainly yield superior long-term dividends.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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