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National Assembly: Drugs, Alcohol Abuse,
and the Criminal Offender
Tuesday, December 7, 1999

Opening Remarks

General Barry McCaffrey, Director
Office of National Drug Control Policy
Washington, D.C.

Summary of Proceedings

General Barry McCaffrey welcomed Assembly participants to the first national conference jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) on the related issues of substance abuse and criminal activity.

A wide range of constituencies were represented by the more than 800 Assembly participants, McCaffrey noted. Participants came from mental health, public health, juvenile justice, substance abuse treatment, criminal justice policy, and law enforcement agencies. State and local corrections officials, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and those who work in the fields of probation and parole attended as well.

The problems facing the criminal justice and health care systems are immense, McCaffrey said. Currently there are approximately 1.9 million people behind bars, and soon the number will exceed 2 million—"a disaster." The government will spend $36 billion annually "to maintain these individuals in enormous pools of human misery." Citing research done at Columbia University, McCaffrey noted that "between 50 percent and 85 percent of those behind bars in America" are there because of "fundamental problems related to the compulsive use of psychoactive drugs or alcohol."

Incarceration for drug-related offenses accounts for a large proportion of those cases. Approximately two of three federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Of the 900,000 state prisoners, an estimated "22 percent are there for drug-related offenses; among the 600,000 in county and municipal jails, the numbers are simply not known."

"When one starts to look at the reason why someone ends up behind bars—say, at age 30—convicted for the third, fourth, or fifth time, the dominant reason probably will be related to drugs and alcohol," McCaffrey said. "Substance abuse is what's behind the criminal behavior, although that's probably not on the charge sheet....A disproportionate amount of assets in our society" are used for people going through the criminal justice system. The same individuals present themselves to three different systems of care: in hospital emergency rooms and public health clinics, in the social welfare system, and in the criminal justice system.

Not only are separate systems of care and random policy decisions unduly expensive, but such approaches will neither solve the problems faced by people committing criminal offenses nor ensure the safety of our communities. Instead of disparate approaches to care, McCaffrey proposed using a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary "conceptual framework" or "architecture" for dealing with the related problems of substance abuse and criminal activity. As an example of this collaborative, systems approach, he cited President Clinton's 1999 National Drug Control Strategy for reducing the availability and use of drugs, particularly among the nation's youth, as well as criminal activity and other social consequences of substance abuse. To attain these goals, the Strategy calls for a partnership among federal, state, and local governments, along with businesses, schools, other community groups, and families and individuals. Working in a collaborative way will generate a "huge payoff" for individuals, their families, and communities across the country, McCaffrey asserted.

What is needed are "practical, hard-nosed policies" with evidence of effectiveness, such as found in the "Breaking the Cycle" program that combines treatment, supervision, and sanctions and the "Drug-Free Prison Zone Project," currently being conducted in 28 federal facilities. The latter program seeks to interdict and control the availability of drugs in prison, and in facilities where it has been implemented, drug use and drug-related misconduct are down significantly. Such cross-agency programs are fundamental to ensuring a decrease in crime rates and an increase in the number of people who are integrated back into society, he said.


Last Updated: March 4, 2002

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