For the last 40 years, we have largely relegated health problems like substance abuse and mental health disorders to the criminal justice system. As a result, millions of people are burdened by felony convictions due to drug use, and those who cannot afford to pay for treatment have had to be locked in cells in order to get access to necessary care.
Now, we have a chance to do something new. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) represents a remarkable opportunity for criminal justice and drug policy reform advocates to advance efforts to enact policy changes that promote safe and healthy communities, without excessively relying on criminal justice solutions that have become so prevalent under the War on Drugs, and which fall so disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color. Even with its challenges, the ACA sets the stage for a new health-oriented policy framework to address problems such as substance use and mental health disorders by more appropriately and effectively casting substance use and mental health disorders as matters of public health and not of criminal justice. Our task is to make the most of it.
To assist advocates in navigating this new terrain, Healthcare Not Handcuffs: Putting the Affordable Care Act to Work for Criminal Justice and Drug Law Reform outlines some of the major provisions of the ACA immediately relevant to criminal justice and drug policy reform and explores specific applications of those provisions, including program and policy examples and suggested action steps.