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For more than 20 years, overdose deaths caused by opioid use and abuse have been a rising concern in the USA. Drug overdoses are currently the leading source of unintentional deaths in the USA. Downstate New York's Suffolk County, which has seen an increase in overdoses of up to 60% in recent years, is among the worst impacted counties. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the present policies because it is obvious that the residents of this County have a much greater risk of dying from overdoses than other people do, which are evidently doing little to stem the growing increase in opioid abuse in the area.
In addressing the growing menace of opioid drug consumption and sale, the Suffolk County police department has introduced a variety of initiatives, which are founded on the existent crime control theories. One such initiative is the introduction of a police hotline for Long Island through which citizens can report any suspected incidences of drug dealing they observe in their neighborhoods (Burkett, 2016). The number, which is staffed round the clock, enables citizens to make anonymous reports if they wish with the case being assigned to the narcotics section or the precinct depending on the details provided by the informants. This system, coupled with New York’s severe anti-drug sentences, which feature mandatory minimums of up to 20 years for some offenses, is designed to demonstrate the commissioner’s zero-tolerance approach to drug-related criminal operations in Suffolk neighborhoods.
Another strategy employed by the Suffolk police and the judicial system is the introduction of a drug court program, which serves as an alternative to jail terms for defendants facing drug-related charges (National Institute of Justice, 2011). The program provides these individuals with education about the adverse effects of drug abuse as well as substance abuse treatment and supervision. Participants in this program must spend a minimum of 12 months of participation with at least six of these months being spent drug-free (National Institute of Justice, 2011). Participants are assigned case managers who monitor their performance, track progress, and administer regular drug tests. Persistent non-compliance with the stated terms leads to the imposition of a jail sentence and the pursuit of traditional criminal justice sanctions against the offender.
Whereas the written law as a concept has been in existence for a long time before the emergence of criminology as an area of study, criminology has exerted a notable influence on the legal system in the United States. Theories explaining criminal behavior fall into six main schools, which are classical school, the psychological school, the social structure school, biological, social conflict, and social process (Schmalleger, 2009). The classical school, which is premised on the teachings of Beccaria, has traditionally been the predominant school in the USA.
According to Beccaria, punishments for criminal activity should be set at just severe enough of a level to dissuade potential criminals from engaging in crime (Schmalleger, 2009). This concept was later expanded on by Bentham who opined that humans usually sought to seek pleasure while avoiding pain thus would usually make calculated risks by weighing the potential pain against the proabable pleasure likely to arise from the engagement in a particular activity (Schmalleger, 2009). Hence, Bentham believed that punishment ought to cause discomfort to offenders but should neither be cruel nor extreme. These two theories formed the foundation of the idea that punishments should fit the crime committed.
The application of these theories is evident in the institution of the stringent mandatory minimums that characterize drug offenses in New York. The thinking underlying this is that when drug offenders know that there is likely to be a long sentence handed down for their crimes, they will be dissuaded from participating in these activities thus reducing the drug problem. However, the spike in drug use in the Suffolk area is evidence enough that the policy is not working with further controversy being the disparate impact caused by these sentences on people of minority origin. Whereas incarceration rates continue to rise, the drug menace is still a long way from being eradicated and is, in fact, growing stronger thus necessitating a rethink of ideas.
The biological theories, on the other hand, are a later advancement on criminological theory and they attempt to establish some biological explanations for the occurrence of criminal activity. For example, Wilson argues that human beings are biosocial organisms and thus that their behavior is influenced by both their surrounding environmental conditions and their physical characteristics (Samaha, 2008). This argument forms the premise of the drug court program in Suffolk County with the underlying logic being that the bodies of substance addicts regularly require additional drugs, which often prompts addicts to commit crimes so they can afford to purchase drugs. Consequently, the best way to cut recidivism among addicts is to cure them of their addiction. Thus, in an area stricken hard by opioid dependence, the introduction of drug courts helps addicts to overcome their drug problems thus reducing their proclivity to criminal activity.
One criminological theory that has no application to the issue at hand is the feminist-criminology theory whose primary advocate is Meda Chesney-Lind. This theory posits that delinquency and crime research has historically ignored girls and women while treating them as an afterthought despite their being victims and perpetrators of crime. The theory further argues that the recent increase in criminal behavior perpetrated by women and the subsequent rise in their incarceration rates is attributable to the victimization of marginalized girls and women who are forced into crime because of a denial of opportunities inherent in the flawed systems (Chesney-Lind, 2006). However, this theory is not very helpful in the issue at hand because most users and addicts of opioids are male Caucasians who are not members of marginalized communities. Consequently, feminist criminology cannot provide much insight into the underlying reasons for the menace or how to combat it.
Evaluation of current practices
At present, Suffolk County has various adopted various approaches to addressing the problem of opioid addiction and the associated criminal activity with varying levels of success. Suffolk County views opioid dependence and abuse as being both a health and criminal justice issue and hence it attempts to address it from those two perspectives. From the criminal justice point of view, increasing patrols, conducting more searches and raids, and imposing strict sentences are some of the approaches being adopted to combat the sale and use of opioids. The strategy has, however, enjoyed mixed fortunes because overdoses continue to grow as drug use becomes more prevalent.
Suffolk County also recognizes that opioid drug addiction is a public health issue and as such it has instituted healthcare based approaches to deal with the issue. Partnering with local medical professionals for example doctors, nurse practitioners, and dentists to reduce prescriptions for opioids is one such technique (vbaird, 2012). The reduction of opioid prescriptions cuts the supply of opioids on the streets thus helping to lower the addiction problem. Besides this, working with healthcare professionals to educate them on how to identify signs of opioid misuse and the associated health risks helps the medical practitioners to counsel and treat patients manifesting with addiction problems (vbaird, 2012). By identifying individuals in need of help, these healthcare professionals help to take more addicts off the streets thus providing a partial solution to the problem.
The collateral consequences theory is an example of an approach that is not being applied at present but which is critically important here. This approach focuses on the debilitating effects of the collateral consequence imposed on convicted felons even after the completion of their sentences, which serve as a significant impediment to the felons’ efforts to open new chapters in their lives after leaving jail. Some examples of these collateral consequences for convicted drug felons include a denial of federal housing and assistance including food stamps as well as a suspension of their eligibility for student loans (LaFollette, 2005). According to the theory, collateral consequences impose disproportional punishment on offenders and are thus in conflict with all other viable criminological theories, which assert the rule of matching a crime with punishment (LaFollette, 2005). Additionally, by making it difficult for felons to obtain federal benefits and even employment, collateral consequences interfere with the rehabilitation goal of correction. As such, it is imperative for the Suffolk County administration to reexamine this theory and seek to eliminate the collateral consequences.
Alternative policy suggestion
Opioid addiction is undoubtedly a persistent and complex problem, which has a history littered with failed drug war policies that only served to exacerbate the issue. Consequently, it is imperative for policymakers to examine new ways of addressing the menace and one of these strategies is to make it easier to obtain treatment for opioid addiction than to access the heroin and opioid painkillers. The fundamental problem inhibiting efforts to curb the abuse of opioids is that it is easier to obtain the drugs than it is to get help (Pierce, et al., 2016). Hence, combating this problem necessitates improving access to opioid alternatives especially medication-assisted treatment using drugs like methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine, which can be used to reduce opioid cravings. Improving the funding for chemical addiction programs would enable the establishment of wholly funded addiction centers in each county where opioid addicts can secure assistance. Besides this, the government can introduce public education to debunk the popular myth that the use of medication-assisted treatment merely entails the substitution of one drug for another. Whereas this treatment strategy does indeed entail the continued use of drugs, it makes drug use much safer by eliminating cravings and withdrawal symptoms associated with the use of opioids thus cutting mortality rates among opioid addicts by over half (Pierce, et al., 2016). Creating awareness about the medical value of this treatment will enable more people to embrace it thus promoting the uptake of treatment.
Summary of scholarly research
According to a study conducted by University of California San Francisco researchers, methadone maintenance is a more efficient way of reducing dependence among heroin users than a 6-month detoxification program (Sees, et al., 2000). The findings of this study mirror those of a National Institute on Drug Abuse study, which found that sustained treatment using Suboxone and buprenorphine was an effective way of combating prescription painkiller addiction (Weiss, et al., 2011). A six-month treatment regime with either standard or minimal counseling was, however, more effective in reducing heroin addiction than a three-week methadone detoxification (Gruber, Delucchi, Anousheh, & Batki, 2008). Bart (2012) also found that maintenance treatment using methadone, naltrexone or buprenorphine also was far more effective in reducing opiate addiction than counseling and detoxification. Likewise, Masson, et al., (2004) established that methadone maintenance was a more cost-effective method for treating opioid addiction than enriched detoxification was.
Hence, the policy recommendation is to establish an opioid addiction treatment program for opioid addicts as opposed to pursuing criminal charges against them for the possession and use of drugs. One benefit of this policy is that it is low-cost, thus making it easily implementable. Besides this, the policy is beneficial because it stimulates a drop in criminal behavior because of the elimination of the illicit use of drugs. Additionally, because subjects do not experience withdrawal symptoms, they can carry on with their normal lives including looking for employment. However, the downside of this policy is that may be difficult for addicts to make daily visits to the addiction clinics especially if they are working. Besides this, methadone is detectable in urine tests, conducted by employers thus potentially causing problems for the recovering addicts.
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