In the battle against the cruelty of addiction, is there a role incarceration can play in recovery?


Is there a role for incarceration when it comes to offenses related to substance abuse? I think there is. In many cases, it’s the most humane thing to do.

Over the years I’ve seen PCP, cocaine, heroin, meth, and now fentanyl use all reach epidemic proportions. I’ve seen the young lives destroyed and families torn apart because of addiction. I’ve seen families beg police officers to take their loved ones to jail because they were dying a slow, torturous death.

I’ve watched as healthy young people over time have morphed into caricatures of their former selves. The physical and emotional changes are dramatic.

From the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department Faces of Meth program, the before and after photos of a meth user.

Many can make a good argument that the nationwide homeless crisis is in part fueled by drug addiction. Decriminalization has contributed to this increase as more addicts lack the external motivation of incarceration to seek help.

Over and over again, lives have been turned around and changed because of the consequences of drug use. Many experience a wake-up call when they end up in a jail cell because they no longer can control themselves. How many people who overcame substance abuse have done so after a wake-up call?

We’ve previously ran stories on Behind the Badge from people who because they were arrested turned their lives around — stories like that of Raul Perez, who was addicted to meth and contemplating suicide. He felt the best thing that ever happened to him was to be arrested by a cop.

Believe me, as a police officer, watching people slowly kill themselves with drugs is something you never get used to.

We recently shared a post from a mother lamenting the struggles with her drug-addicted son. The before-and-after pictures are heartbreaking. A once healthy young man now looks like a human skeleton.

Jennifer Salfen-Tracy posted this picture two weeks ago of her son Cody who is struggling with drug addiction on the streets of Las Vegas. The photo went viral as she sought to get him help. .

For those who lack the will power to break the cycle of addiction, incarceration may be part of the answer. You can’t just make someone stop being an addict. But you can get them physically healthy, allow them to clear their head, and maybe take advantage of opportunities for help — all of which can occur in a jail setting.

Not that I’m saying jail alone is the answer. It rarely is. But when addiction becomes uncontrollable, ready access to treatment and housing may not be enough. A secure, controlled environment may be the best thing for some to start their road to recovery.  

A compassionate form of incarceration would be one where a person could serve their time and get treatment as well. We should not completely write off criminal prosecution as a motivating tool for helping the worst of our addicts help themselves.

Joe is a retired captain with the Anaheim PD. He can be reached at