Jail Doesn't Help Addicts. Let's Stop Sending Them There.

Misti Barrickman has scoliosis. Since she was a teenager, it's been debilitating. It hurt to lie down. It hurt to stand up.

She started taking Oxycontin to help with the pain and became addicted. She came to Seattle to find large quantities of the drug. Unable to find it and feeling increasingly desperate, Misti tried what was readily available: heroin. For the next seven years, she struggled with addiction. She lived between a tent and a jail cell, racking up charges for possession and prostitution.

Her story is all too common.

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Almost 30,000 people were arrested for drugs in New York in 2012. Over 117,000 people were arrested for drugs in California in the same year. Nearly 10,700 people were arrested for drugs in Washington that year.

Some of these people, like Misti, have been arrested multiple times – their addictions haven't been helped by stint after stint behind bars. Too often, the cycle just keeps repeating itself.

Seattle is trying something different.

Since 2012, the city's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) cuts out the criminal justice middleman. Instead of jailing people struggling with addiction, officers connect people directly with the treatment and services that can actually help them get sober.

Instead of wasting time and money with a court hearing and saddling people with a criminal record before they can access treatment and services, LEAD doesn't waste time. And unlike drug courts, LEAD participants who relapse are not threatened with jail time and expulsion from the program.

For the people we interviewed, the program is working. Misti's been sober now for two years. She no longer lives in a tent, and her pain is under control. She is in school. The latest video in our "OverCriminalized" series – produced in partnership with Brave New Films and The Nation – tells Misti's story and the story of others whose lives have improved after police took them to services, not to jail.

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 – particularly the lives of black and brown people.

Although the majority of people who use and deliver drugs in Seattle are white, the black drug arrest rate was 13 times higher than the white drug arrest rate in 2006. Aggressive over-policing has ravaged communities. Large swaths of the population have been locked up. And billions of dollars have been wasted that could have been much better spent on interventions that could have actually changed the course of people's lives.

Drug addiction has become one of the many social problems that we've relegated to the criminal justice system. But as with homelessness and mental illness, handcuffs and jail cells haven't made things better and have cost much more than the treatment and services that can. It doesn't have to be this way. America can safely reduce our reliance on incarceration. Several states have reduced their prison populations while crime rates have dropped.

Addiction should not be a crime.

"OverCriminalized," a new series produced Brave New Films in partnership with the ACLU and The Nation, profiles three promising and less expensive interventions that may actually change the course of people's lives. It's time to roll back mass criminalization and focus on what works.

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Sandra Nor

It’s horrible, my brother has been addicted to drugs since he was 17. He has been in and out of jail, only because the law used him to catch others and they where used to do the same. It became a life style for his self and wife, he is now 56 years. Was arrested last year and this year was given 10 years, the investigators where made because he couldn’t help catch the bad guy, who made threats to the family, the investigators made a remark that they where getting to old to use and said they’ll just spend 20 years in prison!, it’s pretty bad when the law uses addicts to make a name for their selves, than throw you away afterwards when they should had received time in the beginning for help!, it’s a horrible addition and horrible life, theylost all they owned years ago and sold drugs to support their habits! Couldn’t even pay rent, stoldgrocerieries ect!, I lost a lot of faith in our justice system, the only one I truly trust is God


understood to understand


Heroin addition has been a struggle an will always be a social problem. Individually for addicts and recovery there is no help. I overdosed after 5 months of sobrity in which i took in my own hands for treatment. I had a bad day an the opertunity came to use, and i did. I overdosed and once again found myself struggling to keep my head above water because now im faced with criminal charges of possesion and facing feloney charges and jail time and court ordered treatment when im finally free ffrom the addition and the meds needed to fight withdrawal symptoms. HOw is it fair that i now over a year later from this initial charge an have changed my life and made steps on my own to fight addiction have to go back wards an punished for my own illness that many of us have. the justice system from the start of this case never sought to help me with treatment nor was there ever any options besides court dates and lawery fees. Amougst this case where felony charges, jail time, probation, and fines are all im delt i stayed clean and did what i needed to fight my own addiction now im facing trial where im looked at as a felon an drug addict an criminal not a man who is in recovery an is a functioning piece to soicity again.





Brett Gailey

Trauma in adolescence has been shown to increase the likelihood of substance abuse in adulthood. This is especially true for children who cannot obtain psychological treatment for trauma. Using TF-CBT as an accent to traditional substance abuse programs can provide greater clinical success for treatment of addiction. The rehabilitation industrial complex does not provide the same level of mental health treatment that addicts need in their lives. Society will be better off by allowing addicts to seek the mental health they need, not shutting them away.


If one addict finally hits their bottom in jail and decides to do the work, then jail is worth it (and many do). Because most addicts don't want to stop, because life with drugs is better than real life.

Nobody stays clean unless they want to, more than anything in life. Making drug addiction easier isn't going to make anyone more likely to want to quit.

Don't be fooled. Addiction isn't an ordinary "disease". The "cure" is wanting to stop more than anything. The disease is never wanting to stop.

Yvonne Aldredge

Jail does to help people get off drugs!!!!! I know a few people that it has helped. Rehabs don't do much. The reason, is because they can leave the rehab whenever they want to. Jail,they can't as easily do so. 6 months or more,really helps.


A person with a drug problem may be reluctant to come to you and ask for help, but if you can tolerate the lies and manipulation, an open dialogue is your best chance to be there for them when they need you most.The realities of addiction are painful. It’s hard to hear that a

loved one’s life is at risk and you can’t fix it. But once you accept
certain realities, you may discover that there’s empowerment beyond the powerlessness.
You will start to notice the way you have been neglecting yourself and your own life. You may have abandoned or neglected your own goals and dreams because you have been so busy trying to fix the addict.



Addiction is such a difficult problem to solve because so many addicts are not willing to put in the extreme, life-long effort involved in quitting and staying clean and sober. It is a revolutionary change in mental and emotional (spiritual?) perspective.

Jail helps motivate some. Those who refuse to become willing as least are less of a burden on society in jail.

You can't make someone quit drugs who really isn't willing to do all the heavy lifting involved in completely changing who they are.

Most addicts die before they're willing to do all that work.

I'd say it's our moral obligation to make using drugs as painful as possible, and recovery as painless as possible.


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