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Legally Coerced Treatment for Drug Using Offenders: Ethical and Policy Issues

NCJ Number
Wayne Hall; Jayne Lucke
Date Published
September 2010
12 pages
This bulletin argues the case for legally coerced drug treatment in New South Wales (Australia), describes the various approaches that have been used to implement it, discusses the ethical issues raised by various types of legally coerced drug treatment, and summarizes the evidence on the effectiveness of community-based drug treatment with and without legal coercion.
The most persuasive argument for legally coercing drug offenders to enter community-based drug treatment is that it is more effective and less expensive than the use of imprisonment in reducing drug use and crime. The most ethically defensible form of such coercion is to make imprisonment the alternative so as to provide an incentive for an offender to enter mandatory treatment in the community. Also, imprisonment should continue to be the response should an offender fail to comply with the drug treatment regimen in the community. In addition, offenders should be given the choice as to the particular form of treatment in which they will participate. Type of treatment is important not only from an ethical perspective, but also because no single treatment approach is suitable for all offenders. Compulsory treatment that does not allow offender choice is the most ethically contentious form of coerced treatment because it deprives offenders of any choice, which minimizes incentives and autonomy as important components of the rehabilitative process. Research has presented a good case for providing voluntary, prison-based drug treatment for recidivist offenders who cannot be treated in community-based programs. The evidence for the effectiveness of compulsory prison-based drug treatment is weak. Likewise, "boot camps" have not proven effective in treating drug offenders. Prison-based treatment communities, cognitive-behavioral treatment, and contingency management have a reasonable chance of success provided offenders are linked to treatment programs after release. 90 references