Do drugs cause crime? Or are criminals drawn to drugs?

Chip Shields

And what really works in reducing recidivism (offenders returning to crime)?

As some may know, I started a nonprofit called Better People before running for the legislature. Better People is a living-wage employment and counseling program for people who are in recovery from addiction and for people who’ve been in trouble with the law. It's been written up as a "Best Practice: Community Program Available to Parole" by the Sentencing Project and has also been praised by Public/Private Ventures.

My experience with Better People is why I was so excited to see Phil Busse’s students at the Northwest Institute for Social Change focus on the challenges former offenders face when looking for a second chance in the workforce. They posted their video here.

The students did an incredible job of personalizing the challenges former offenders face in rejecting their previous criminal peers and lifestyles, and embracing the recovery lifestyle.

There's no doubt that it is harder to find living-wage employment if you've been in trouble with the law. Hiring an offender can be risky business. But there are living-wage employers who will give a former offender a second chance if the offender has shown he has worked hard since the offense to better himself.

Going through a program like that of Better People, Southeast Works or Volunteers of America can increase an offender's chance of success. Good employment programs hold offenders accountable and employers come to trust those programs that are serious about that accountability. To see a RAM file of what Scott Eave of Gunderson Inc. said about hiring through Better People click here. And to see what Dwight Edwards of Oregon Iron Works said about hiring through Better People click here.

Employment helps, but does it really reduce recidivism? If not, what does work to reduce recidivism? The answers may surprise you.

Here’s Dr. Ken Robinson’s testimony to the Joint House and Senate Judiciary Committee and the legislature’s interim Public Safety Strategies Task Force, which I chair. He analyzes what works and what doesn't when it comes to reducing recidivism.

You can see the rest of his presentation by clicking here:
Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V

For Robinson, drug abuse in the correctional population is often a symptom of the underlying Anti-Social Personality Disorder. He says it’s important to treat the dynamic factors in an offender's life, including addressing how offenders think and make decisions. Certain cognitive-behavioral therapies have been shown to be effective with this treatment-resistant population.

That’s why the Mannix Mandatory Measure (#61) is so dangerous. It's a failing, rigid, one-size-fits-all approach that will never work. By locking up non-violent property offenders for a mandatory three years, without any funding for drug treatment, we're creating a gold-plated revolving door in our prisons, because we aren't addressing addiction. Measure 57 is a better way to fight crime because it increases sentences for repeat offenders and provides drug treatment.

Our work on the Public Safety Strategies Task Force is to forge better answers than the one-size-fits-all in Measure 61. Our job is to discover what works,and to help the legislature funnel your tax dollars into the better ways to fight crime -- ways that are tough and smart.

Get involved. To keep up on the Public Safety Strategies Task Force, you can go to .

From time to time, I'll post on more on the work of the Public Safety Strategies Task Force as we move towards our recommendations for the 2009 legislative session.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks for the report, Rep. Shields.

    This is something Gresham is having a lot of problems with - we have a high drug crime rate, property crime rate, identity theft rate, etc. And all that is happening to these people is the revolving door of our prisons and jails. Nothing is being done to solve the underlying problems, like offering drug treatment programs, so the people return back to their old life upon leaving prison.

    Measure 57 might not be the perfect bill, but I know it will do a lot to help us truly combat our crime problems out here in Gresham. Adding more police officers will help catch more criminals, but without the offenders going through all the steps they need to make them productive members of society, anything police do will just be a temporary measure.

  • RW (unverified)

    With mandatory sentencig laws and more-intense characterizations of adolescent acting-out contributing to earlier negative impacts on youth who act out or even temporarily go into misdirect, programs like these are important. Categorization occurs early, and the lasting template created in early adulthood is difficult if not impossible to reconfigure.

    An otherwise standard-bearing citizen, my son did his small share of individuation without being involved in any way with crimes against others, and got himself in trouble at school. This directly inserted him into contact with police programming. He really did not understand that within a year he would be garnering a record that would injure his ability to get education and work in a lasting way. He did not understand that he need not even really injure anyone but himself in his investigations to REALLY injure his chances as a result of his investigations. We are the lucky ones. It was merely trying out "normal kid" life, and we have a culture-based spirituality that gives him ongoing manhood challenges most of you men might never be able to acquit. He is ok.

    But if he had underlying psychological conditions that cannot be addressed through rigorous manhood and warrior rites, the chances of these being addressed from my platform of limited resources... I cringe to consider it.

    Gender studies show that boys, external-action focused, get in trouble with drugs, fighting, the law. Girls, internalizers, tend to get in trouble with relationship, sexuality, pregnancy.

    Your program is possibly important in protecting nuclear family coherence. The inability of breadwinners to reenter the earnings loop disrupts family structures and destroys lives in multiple dimensions. Oregon has been in active economic bleedout since 1999. Mannix is out of his mind to think more controls and less treatment is really the answer. It rarely, rarely is.

    Once a desperate parent cannot help a charge learn the concepts needed to direct themselves out of "trouble" while still resourced from home, it does become (to a degree for some, entirely for some others) the task such as your program to offer the structure, resource and direct experiencing as to how to reshape ones' thoughts and restructure ones' life, whether at the critical juncture of youth, or later in life after having been institutionalized as a result of missteps.

    I would like to read the entire legislative package and also know if anything is being attached to it after the fact. Riders? And how do you kick those off so that a pure product an electorate can stand behind makes it through?

  • BetterLaws (unverified)

    The title of this post exemplifies the hypocrisy surrounding everything to do with drugs -- that is certain drugs. Better People is a great organization for helping people leaving prison put their lives back together, but not all drug users are criminals except insofar as society criminalizes certain drugs. President Bush famously misused alcohol, drove under the influence and partied his 20s and 30s and somo of his 40s away. He has never come clean about his cocaine use. Barack Obama admits he used cocaine as a teen. John McCain's wife had a prescription pills problem. Even Helen Mirren admits she loved using cocaine at parties and only stopped when she realized how it benefited violent criminal drug lords. Are all these people anti-social personalities. It makes a mockery of categorizing anti-social activity in my view. The difference between these people and many people in prison is simply class background, and the fact they never were unlucky enough to get arrested. Now I am not naive about the devastating impact of drug addiction on many lives. Meth, crack, heroin addicts are desparate people who need help. Treatment should be available. But we need to stop locking up people and destroying their lives for what is a practically universal behavior -- and for many people is not damaging at all. I just read in the Tribune that Multnomah county chief Ted Wheeler is hoping to solve the Wapato problem through contracting to receive all the extra women prisoners who will be locked up if either the Mannix bill or the legislative "alternative" passes this November. This despite plenty of evidence that locking up -- mothers in particular -- for petty low level crimes (forgery for example, makes you think of high level criminals, but often is putting away drug seekers who forge prescriptions) destroys families and lives to no good end.

    Prison right now in the US is used as a weapon against the poor and in particular against poor minorities. Please let's inject some humanity and honesty into this debate and not leave it all up to people who benefit from criminalizing huge numbers of us.

  • Greg D. (unverified)

    Drugs don't cause crime.

    Rich people use drugs (legal and illegal) but they don't have to steal to support their drug use. Very few of them come into contact with the criminal justice system.

    If a poor person becomes addicted to drugs, he/she does not have the luxury of paying for them with his/her own money, and stealing becomes the only option. Robbery, burglary and identity theft crimes follow shortly thereafter.

    Legalizing drugs - and giving addicts an option that does not force them to steal my TV - seems like a reasonable solution. But I don't see the US going in that direction anytime soon.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, Chip.

    You are, as usual, right on target.

    Oregon is fortunate to have you in the legislature.

  • marv (unverified)

    A competent estimate of the amount of profits from drugs that enters the stock market is upwards of one half trillion dollars per year. Reform of banking laws which permit off shore mannipulations was proposed by Clinton and fought by the Gingrich Congress. So yes it does attract criminal behavior. Anyone recall what happened to the Christic Institute or Danny Casselero? Now we benefit with a permanent private prison industry.

  • mlw (unverified)

    I agree that it is a thoughtful post. I work in the criminal justice system (the views here are only my own) and I often see people confused about the purpose of prison. Prison is primarily for punishment. We should not expect it to reduce crime, except by segregating the people most likely to commit crime from the rest of society. Probation and post-prison supervision, on the other hand, should be funded based on our desire to prevent recidivism. We've fallen into the trap of funding only punishment.

    As a society, we seem to be falling into the oversimplification trap. People tend to think either "Prison doesn't solve anything" or "Just lock them up!" Measure 57 strikes a reasonable, if imperfect, balance between the quite reasonable desire to see people who do terrible things punished and the pragmatic principle that we should target a reasonable proportion of our funding towards preventing recidivism.

    One of my coworkers used to teach kindergarten in a small town. She claimed she could tell who was going to end up in prison even at that young age, yet no one would intervene with the parents to help get the kid back on the right track. The punishment versus rehabilitation argument is all well and good, but we should also pay attention to the role that funding of social services and education plays in preventing kids from becoming criminals in the first place. I don't think that the reason the prison population has risen so precipitously is that we're just doing a better job at enforcement. I suspect that it's that we're doing a worse job at taking care of our children as a society.

  • (Show?)

    Drug use does not necessarily equal drug addiction. In fact, heavy drug use does not necessarily equal drug addiction.

    The casual (or not so casual) drug user retains the power of choice. The drug addict, such as myself, has lost the power of choice with respect to whatever drug they are addicted to. That's the essence of addiction... the loss of choice. For me it was meth and cocaine. For others it's alcohol or heroin or something else.

    I submit that drug users who are not addicts very rarily go around breaking into houses and cars stealing stuff to pay for their next fix. Those are drug addicts committing these crimes.

    No length of imprisonment will turn a drug addict into a non-addict. Sure, it's hard to burglarize from a prison cell. But unless we as a society are prepared to lock them up for the rest of their lives, the odds that they will re-offend once released is quite high.

    If nothing changes, nothing changes.

    I love how Rep. Shields talks about not just about embracing recovery but about "embracing the recovery lifestyle." This is crucial in ending the vicious cycle of addiction and crime.

    If nothing changes, nothing changes.

    I don't know how many here had the opportunity to see Brian Lindstrom's movie Finding Normal on OPB a few weeks ago but I hope that if you didn't, that you find a way to watch it.

    Lindstrom's film doesn't spend much time analyzing what causes addiction and alcoholism. Instead it focusing on recovery and particularly on embracing the recovery lifestyle. And it goes without saying that an individual who embraces recovery and the recovery lifestyle simply doesn't re-offend.

    There is a time and a place for imprisoning criminals regardless of what led to the crime being committed. Prison is, after all, a consequence and bitter consequences are often one of the most effective ways of getting an addict or alcoholic to face reality and choose recovery.

    But as a taxpaying society we simply can't afford to delude ourselves into thinking that locking addicts and alcoholics will solve the problem. It won't. Nor is it anything close to an effective deterent to addicts and alcoholics who are not yet locked up.

    If nothing changes, nothing changes.

  • Eric Parker (unverified)

    Boredom causes drugs - Pure and simple. No amount of 'anti' programs will change that. We need to keep people active. Inactive people tend to become very bored in their lives and then will try stuff like drugs (and maybe lead to unwanted pregnancies) becuase they have nothing better to do to pass the extra time they have on their hands.

    Idle time leads to doing things you shouldn't do. Boredom trumps common sense. killing boredom would eliminate a lot of problems.

  • Scott Jorgensen (unverified)

    On Friday, I attended Josephine County's 41st annual Drug Court graduation ceremony. The Drug Court program has become a model of sorts for a different approach to the criminal justice system. It's clearly obvious at this point that the existing model just isn't working. Drug Court is one example of another approach that can be taken for dealing with these issues. Josephine County officials are also working on developing a Mental Health court, which would be modeled after the drug court. I think these and similar concepts are worth pursuing as an alternative to the badly broken status quo.

  • (Show?)

    If we refuse to fully treat people for mental health issues and disorders in our local communities, a natural consequence of that inaction is a significant violent and property criminal population.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Gosh what a complex topic....

    My family and I were victimized by someone who would reasonably be called a sociopath: someone who would lie, cheat and manipulate without batting an eye or losing sleep, someone who just viewed other people as objects to be used and discarded. And no, our victimizer was not a drug addict (beyond her heavy use of tobacco). The lesson I learned, and which I will never forget, is that there simply are people out there who are tweaked, who are dangers to the people around them.

    Let's help rehabilitate the criminals who can be rehabilitated; let's provide drug treatment to those who need it; but let's not pretend that everyone can be rehabilitated, and let's remember that there truly are people behind bars who are dangers to society.

    So let's not suppose

  • (Show?)

    I don't think anyone here is assuming or asserting that there is no one behind bars that doesn't need to be there, only that empirical evidence points to the fact that a great many people in the criminal justice system can be helped to become contributing members of society and that the current system doesn't do enough to accomplish that.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    I served on the Grand Jury about 10 years ago. Even then they told us that about 75% - 80% of all the cases we would hear would be related (directly or non-directly) to drug use. At the end I had to agree.

    Drugs don't cause crime, people abusing drugs cause crime. There doesn't even have to be the addiction issue for the crime to take place. For clarity, I'm not even mentioning pot; mostly meth, coke and prescription pain abuse. The observance was that over the 3 month period many, many names became recognzed as returnees through the system - even though they had not yet been tried/sentanced for the original charge.

    More meaningful rehabilitation opportunities should be out there and available for those caught in the drug abuse cycle. However, there must also be the heavy hand of incarceration for those who refuse to change their ways.

  • Rep Chip Shields (unverified)

    Joel - I have found this description of the antisocial personaltiy to be interesting. You probably see some or much of your perpetrator here.

    I am truly sorry for whatever happened to your family.

  • Jason Renaud (unverified)

    Greg D,

    Strictly speaking, you're right - drugs don't cause crimes. Just like guns don't kill people. But it's a shortsighted and childish argument which intends to mislead. These are inanimate objects, by themselves inert.

    You mislead also by advocating drug legalization. What you want is to legalize drug use. This ignores addiction and would cost our community untold grief and incalculable dollars. It's at best irresponsible.

    What's true is drug treatment is the cheapest form of crime prevention we as a community can buy. The question community leaders should be asking is, why do we give up and incarcerate so many people when treatment and rehabilitation is a reasonable and responsible alternative? The question voters should ask is why almost no community leaders in Oregon, present company excluded, don't object to the status quo.

    Kevin’s right, the documentary Finding Normal shows one of the nation’s most successful drug treatment programs, right here in Portland. Find out more about the filmmaker at Managed by Central City Concern, this is a mature, thoughtful response to addiction, highly successful, and when compared to hospitals, institutions and death, which are the alternatives, inexpensive.

  • Rob Ingram (unverified)

    Overall, I agree with Rep. Shields. One thing I would like to bring to light is how often our young people have turned to drugs and /or alcohol to "self-medicate" in order to cover, mask or "deal with" the troubles and issues presented by society. Not that society is at fault, but our young people are under lots of stress that is, more often than not, caused by adults. We (no one specific) have eliminated employment opportunities, decreased arts programs in school and out, allowed organized sports to become expensive and have not fully funded youth development organizations and programs. No wonder we have so many youth who are lost. These young people experiment and become addicted to substances before they are old enough to vote or go to prison; but by the time they can go to prison, they do. We can't arrest and jail our youth out of drug addiction, nor will "tougher crimes" ever do anything except make that whole cycle worse, just look at Los Angeles.

  • (Show?)

    Where's the early education piece of this plan?

    If it exists; Is it, as it has been for the past century, based on a whole lot of lying your ass off to scare the crap out early adolescents?

    If so, it won't work any better than it ever has, since the basic assumption, that kids are at least as clueless as the guys running the anti-drug assembly, ain't true.


    Here's an idea. Make early education a centerpiece of the whole deal.

    Make that education be about informed decision making. Critical Thinking. Risk analysis. Basic individual psychology, and the psychology of groups.

    Teach these subjects every single year from K through 12 (in age appropriate bites, using these tool at various stages of the maturing process to address:

    sexual maturation general risk taking financial literacy drug use social integration

    For High school upper classes, bring back the old Andrew Weil's The Natural Mind for a starting point, the get into the brain chemistry thing with 'em too.


    Humans have been using drugs to alter consciousness since about the time they figured out how to get termites out of a mound with sticks.

    An advanced society should be able to come up with a better idea than telling kids horror stories, and then waiting a few years until the old neural pathways have set around various addictions to teach people how to actually think about this stuff.

  • Clark (unverified)

    I think early education may be helpful, but early intervention starts before birth. My brother and father were lifelong addicts and they both died of their addictions. It is clear to me now that they were both self-medicating their sensitive constitutions. I now have a son who is four years old and I can see some of the same sensitivities in him. It has also helped me understand my own struggles with self-esteem, depression and physical health. My background in neuro-psychology leads me to believe that people experience discomfort differently. Some people are well balanced chemically and they are thereby very resilient to the ups and downs that characterize every life. Some people live in a chronic state of deficient neurochemistry. The result is an unusual sensitivity to emotional and physical discomfort and a constant sense that something is wrong. These people are significantly more susceptible to substance abuse and addiction. So, yes, treat the addiction. Treat the underlying chemical imbalance. But also treat the child in utero and as an infant. Why? There is a lot of evidence that a healthy pregnancy, a birth without significant trauma, and normal, happy bonding and care from parents can help protect a child from the chemical imbalances that could lead to problems with drugs and the law later in life.

  • Lee Berger (unverified)

    Drug use doesn't cause crime. Drug prohibition causes crime. The notion that we need longer prison sentences to get people without health insurance in the criminal justice system drug treatment is patently offensive and throwing in a section that whichever initiative gets more votes wins is especially disappointing to see. Democrats ought to vote No on both the Mannix proposal and on the proposal from the legislature.

  • Eric Parker (unverified)

    "One thing I would like to bring to light is how often our young people have turned to drugs and /or alcohol to "self-medicate" in order to cover, mask or "deal with" the troubles and issues presented by society"

    What a lame excuse. This is a cop out. They turn to drugs because they are bored with their lives and use the drugs to take up the time they have on thier hands. Common sense would argue otherwise, but boredom supercedes common sense and forces them to experiment just to pass the idle time thay have to use. The key is to keep them busy with something constructive. Keep them busy and they won't be tempted to use anything out of boredom.

  • Donna Slepack (unverified)

    Approximately 75% of the prisoners on Oregon's death row abused drugs at the time of their arrest. One actually asked for more treatment before he ever killed anyone. He was turned down because the State would not spend anymore money on him. Now they are spending millions to execute him. Substance abuse is a medical problem. Putting people in prison for a medical condition is an expensive absurdity.

  • (Show?)

    They turn to drugs because they are bored with their lives and use the drugs to take up the time they have on thier hands.

    I've been in recovery for a couple decades now and know lots and lots of folks who are also in recovery, from both drugs and from alcohol - many from both.

    With all due respect, I don't know a single one of them who would agree with your assertion. I certainly don't agree with it. In fact, Rob very accurately described my own circumstances in initially getting into drugs.

    Boredom had absolutely nothing whatever to do with it.

  • Chris Stringer (unverified)

    Under the current law you do not go to prison for Identity Theft, Burglary-2nd Degree or First Degree Theft until your FIFTH conviction and then it is for a mere 13 months (ORS 137.717). These are crimes often tied to drug usage.

    Drug Courts are great community justice tools, but defense attorneys and prosecutors both agree that it is oftentimes hard to convince defendants to enter an intensive program like a drug court when Oregon's drug and property crimes sentences provide limited incentive to do so. Why do an intensive year long program like Drug Court when you can do a short jail stint and be on a low level supervised probation? If either initiative passes it will be easier to provide incentives for defendants to enter drug courts.

  • bob (unverified)

    Good article, Chip. When I was in 6th grade a few of my classmates routinely acted out and disrupted class. Teacher would tell the whole class to put our heads on our desks and be motionless and quiet. The behaved kids were punished (and not learning) due to the behavior problems of a few kids. Here, the cost becomes less educated kids as well as kids with problems not getting attention they need.

    25 years later I've seen a few of my 6th grade classmates and they've been through the "correctional" system for drugs, prostitution, crime and mental problems.

    Fortunately, my parents spent a lot of time with me to help me develop thinking and reasoning. I'd make a boo boo and my parents would ask me to explain to them why my behavior was negative and what the correction should be.

    Too many kids don't get that support from parents or school, but corrective support is what kids need to stay off drugs and out of the "corrections" system in the first place. It would help if our corrective efforts took place earlier before bad habits have become ingrained and harder to repair.

    To those who would cut government programs to the bone to save themselves paying taxes for services from which they benefit, I ask, what is the cost of not providing early, necessary and effective services for citizens which will enhance society while diminishing the long-term cost in dollars and suffering?

    Does a car that is poorly maintained run better and last longer than one that is?

  • Jiang (unverified)

    Duh. Laws cause crime. So it had better be necessary. That, plus Lincoln's statement that it is ludicrous to legislate against ones appetites and the Dutch political imperative that you keep as much of the electorate inside the tent peeing out as opposed to sticking them outside to pee in, and there ain't much left to try and figure out.

    As a simple fiscal matter, reduce tobacco smoking before you get one cent of my tax dollars for "drug programs". That one is trivial. Look at other systems. If you are getting zero- or negative return- on that one, you have no credibility on any other substance program.

    Oh, and get addiction right. The medicine has gone out the window! How about a simple rule? If the drug works by dealing with a condition that it produced, it's addictive. It it's dealing with a condition that something else produced, it's a tool. Taking a drag on a fag only reduces the wanting a fag. That's an addiction. Taking a drag on a joint keeps me from quitting my job. That's a tool.

    What else is there to the drug debate? Yeah, how can demographics, culture and religion combine so that one society gets is so wrong for so long.

  • Rob Ingram (unverified)

    Specifically to Mr. Parker and Mr. Ryan: I believe there is some misunderstanding here. This being a comment, rather than an article or book, I chose to keep my comments short. Pat, I agree that early education is essential. I also agree that it should be introduced in the grades you mentioned. I'm not sure where the "scare the crap out of them" comment comes from? Remember how affective Mrs. Reagan's 'Just Say No' campaign? [sarcasm] Mr. Parker, I almost took offense to your "cop out" comment, but you're free to have your own perspective. If you read clearly, I spoke to the lack of activities and programs to keep kids busy, and thus away from drugs, alcohol, and delinquency in general. Common sense would suggest that an engaged child is less likely to involve themselves in negative activities. However, science (and a few posts right below yours) suggest that America's drug problem is MUCH more than bored children, and all the activities in the world will not completely eliminate this problem itself. If man has been altering his state so long, than the productive question every adult should ask is "why?" If we can address (or at least discuss) the issues 'man' is trying to alter or escape, and try to affect them, we might really get somewhere and do future generations a huge favor.

  • Jim Lorenzen (unverified)

    It depends on which end of the drug culture you're refering to: Sales & Distribution or Consumption. Most if not all people entering into the Sales and Distribution of illegal drugs to so because of the potentially huge amounts of money that they can make. While it is true that some get into selling to finance there own habit, the big people are in it for the money. This should surprise no one as there was no such thing as national organizied crime until Prohibition set up the same dynamic. While illegal booze started out small, with "mom & pop" operations making beer in the basement it wasn't long before crime bosses moved in and forced them to "retire" (if they were lucky). The drug culture started out the same way with neighborhood "Dealer McDopes" sharing their "Home Grown" being forced out by the new crime bosses who have only one main organizational rule: "Don't Get High on Your Own Supply" - the movie "Scarface" not withstanding. Consumption is caused by Despair! People who have no hope or think they have nothing to lose need an escape - and drugs, like booze, is there for that. Addiction to drugs causes crime to finance the addiction. Living in a transitioning neighbor for the last 27 years I've seen two generations of youth who, feeling discarded by society, have turned to drugs and then crime to finance the drugs. To win the "War on Crime" you first have to win the "War on Addiction" (notice I didn't say War on Drugs). Jail without treatment is costly, ineffective and a waste of tax payer money!

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