In 2013, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 2,220,300 Americans were incarcerated in US federal or state jails and prisons, of which Maine accounted for about 2,000 people. This was on the order of one out of every 150 Americans (or one in 600 Mainers), representing a 500% increase in rates of incarceration over the previous 40 years. The United States, the world’s leader in incarceration, locked up more people per capita than 26 of the largest European nations combined.

Of those incarcerated in the United States, it was (and is) estimated that drug addiction disorders were (and are) at the root of 85% of imprisonments, according to a report published by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explained most of this increase. At the federal level, people incarcerated on a drug conviction make up half the prison population. At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased ten-fold since 1980. Most of these people are not involved in high-level drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense.

What was the effect of these mass imprisonments for drug-related crimes? Imprisonment has been found to have little effect on drug abuse. Particularly in the past decade, rates of drug addiction continued to skyrocket in Maine many times over. Paralleling the growth in drug addiction, deaths due to drug overdoses and rates of infants born drug affected from opiate-by-maternal addiction increased 500% in the past 10 years in Maine. Sixty to 80 percent of drug abusers committed a new crime (typically a drug-related crime) after release from prison. Approximately 95 percent of inmates with drug addiction returned to drug abuse after release from prison. Attempts to “incarcerate our way out of the addiction problem” have completely failed.

On the other hand, drug addiction treatment has been found effective in reducing drug use and its associated health and social costs. Treatment is also far less expensive than incarceration. For example, the average cost for one full year of drug addiction treatment is approximately $5,000 per patient, whereas one year of imprisonment costs in excess of $30,000 per person. More than $25,000 could be saved per person per year by diverting people found guilty of committing minor drug-related crimes into treatment instead of prison.

In addition to overwhelming evidence that incarceration is ineffective in reducing rates of drug addiction, our nation’s prison population has exploded beyond capacity and harms inmates, families and corrections staff. Close to home, the Knox County Jail, which is approved to house 70 inmates, often is forced to accommodate in excess of 90 inmates under very stressful circumstances to both inmates and staff. With very rare exceptions, people imprisoned with drug addiction are not offered treatment, causing untold suffering and the squandering of an opportunity to break the cycle of addiction and arrest. Rather than increasing public safety, jails and prisons are becoming pressure cookers with increasing risks to inmates and staff. In the past six years, Maine’s governor has pushed harder for further imprisonments while making it more difficult for treatment programs to provide needed therapy. Maine is definitely on the wrong track for solving the addiction-epidemic issue.

The good news is that all Knox County sheriffs and police departments believe that incarceration is the wrong response for people who are arrested for relatively minor drug-related crimes. All agree that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem” and support efforts to divert people with drug addiction into treatment rather than into jail.

So, where do things stand in Knox County? As of this time, there has been no significant change in criminal justice practices in Knox County in recent years, and the untenable situation continues. The newly formed Knox County Recovery Coalition (KCRC) has made this issue a top priority and has begun to convene meetings among criminal justice professionals and community representatives to seek to replace the practice of incarceration with drug treatment instead.

Additionally, for inmates confined in Knox County Jail, the Sherriff’s Department is in favor of introducing treatment of addiction into the jail and wishes to explore this further with KCRC. Leadership also hopes to develop a “re-entry” process, with KCRC’s help, to improve rates of successful reintroduction into the community for all inmates, avoiding repeated arrests and jail sentences for people with a mental health disorder.

Over the coming months, it is expected that major changes will occur in the way that people with drug addiction will be handled in Knox County. This level of discussion is unprecedented and reflects the consensus growing in Knox County, nurtured by KCRC, to fix our broken government and health care systems. Please stay tuned and join our effort.

Please contact KCRC at 558-3525 or email KCRC at for more information.