Study Says Gov't Restrictions Pushing Convicted Drug Offenders Back to Drugs, Crime

What becomes of the more than nine million Americans who are released from prison or jail each year?

Legislation intended to deter drug use by denying government services to convicted drug users seems to actually increase drug abuse while forcing recently released drug offenders back into a life of crime.

That's the conclusion of Juliana van Olphen of San Francisco State University, who led a study of the impact of legislation that denied services such as food stamps, welfare, or subsidized public housing to convicted drug offenders.

Olphen and her research team conducted in-depth interviews with 17 women who had recently been released from prison after serving time for drug-related offenses.

Drug Offenders Face 'Double Stigma' after Release

Olphen's team found that the "double stigma" of being a convicted felon and a drug user closed a lot of doors that might otherwise have provided a pathway for upward social mobility.

Although government policies that limited certain services to convicted drug users were designed to reduce drug use, they disproportionately targeted poor women, denying these women safe housing, employment, or education after their release from prison.

Limiting Access to Reintegration Services, Housing and Health Care

The San Francisco State University researchers highlighted a "one strike and you're out" law in California that denies public housing to convicted felons as an example of a policy that can make it difficult for released drug offenders to get back on their feet without resorting to criminal activities.

The researchers concluded that when social stigma and government policies take away a person's ability to get a place to live, a job, or an education, they do more harm than good -- ultimately pushing vulnerable people back into lives of drugs and crime. The stigma of drug use and incarceration increases a person's need for social services, but legislation bars access to these services.

Even Brief Jail Stays can Cause Big Problems

The average length of a stay in jail (not prison) is 45 days, but even brief stays in jail can disrupt access to health services such as Medicaid, and thus preclude access to substance abuse or mental health services. Without access to treatment services, the likelihood of relapse increases, and the chances of re-arrest and re-incarceration rise – and thus a vicious circle self propagates.

The researchers also concluded that stigmatization and policies that restrict services to convicted felons entrench existing racial disparities in the prison population. As an example of this problem, they noted that the San Francisco County Jail inmate population is about half African-American, even though the total population of the county is only 8 percent African-American.

The researchers advocated on behalf of government-led campaigns that would strive to reduce the social stigma of being a past drug user and convict. Reducing stigmatization, they said, would enable released prisoners to experience greater success in their efforts to reintegrate into law-abiding society.

The full contents of the San Francisco State University study can be found at the Substance Abuse and Policy website.

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