It’s no secret that two of the biggest problems with the criminal justice system in the United States are over-criminalization of drugs and sentencing to jail time. Treatment, not incarceration, is what is actually needed. As this realization sweeps over the nation, a key question still persists: How do we adjust the funding streams so that we can pay for treatment programs instead of funneling more money into the bloated prison-industrial complex?

It turns out that Medicaid expansion (which was built into Obamacare, aka The Affordable Care Act) is solving this problem. Because of how the ACA was drafted, repeat drug offenders are now eligible for coverage. This wasn’t the case before the ACA. Provisions for mental health care, built into the parity provision of the ACA, are helping to fund treatment for individuals with mental illness and addiction problems.

To help give some perspective on the issue, let’s take a look at a real-world scenario. The LEAD program describes this upcoming video interview as “a conversation between a recovering addict, Seattle cop, and a case manager on their experience as some of the first participants in an innovative harm reduction program. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is a harm reduction program started in Seattle. Instead of incarcerating low level, repeat drug offenders, LEAD is a pre-booking diversion program treating addiction as a public health issue by connecting addicts to treatment services. Its success brought the attention of the White House who invited LEAD organizers to share the program with police chiefs, prosecutors, social workers and policy makers from across the country.”

Check this video out:

This is exactly the type of program that demonstrates the direction that the country needs to be heading in if we are going to fix the justice system and stop creating criminals by locking up addicts or the mentally, along with violent offenders rather than treating those in need and getting them back into society where they can thrive and get healthy.

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation with my colleague Ragavan (who writes for the 1planet1chance blog) where we addressed issues of cost and waste in the justice system as it applies to dealing with mental illness. The biggest reaction from the audience was provoked by these infographics from USA Today’s article Cost of not caring: Nowhere to go.


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This chart shows how many folks with mental illness in the U.S. are actually being treated (in red) versus those who are homeless or in jail (in blue) versus make the heartbreaking decision to end their own lives (in black). The Affordable Care Act is changing this.

And while many assume that increased treatment for those with mental illness or substance abuse issues would be exorbitantly expensive, in fact the complete opposite is true. Here’s what you get for $30K:


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To clarify, for $30,000 you can have someone with mental illness either:

A. Hospitalized for less than three weeks

B. Serve a 3 month prison sentence… or

C. receive a year of treatment, a home, and disability income (that will go right back into the economy)

The choice of what’s going to be most effective (cost-wise and health-outcome-wise) couldn’t be clearer. And the ACA is paving the way. If this trend continues, we may finally be able to say, “the war on drugs and mental illness, is over!”

Signing off, Adam.

Header Image Credit


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