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Justice, Mercy, and Utility in Rehabilitation

November 3, 2011

TROSA is not entirely self-sufficient, as we have discussed. Every drug rehabilitation program costs resources that might otherwise be spent on citizens who require no second chances. Individuals’ personal thoughts and feelings on drug rehabilitation programs are likely to invoke values of either mercy or of justice (as it is synonymous to retribution and contrasted with mercy). Here I’ll explore the basis for each of these claims. Ultimately, though, at the governmental level, broader normative claims supporting or opposing drug rehabilitation programs appear to be based most on more utilitarian examinations of the states of affairs.


In the sense in which it will be discussed here, the term justice is synonymous with retribution (“He had it coming. Justice has been served.”). Certainly, substance abusers have almost always made a significant mistake (or series of mistakes) in order to reach such a status. Some would argue that to “treat” these people using the tax dollars of citizens who have remained disciplined in abstaining from such indulgences would be wrong, that to live with the consequences of their mistake(s) reasonably follows as a matter of justice.


On the other hand, many religions (most notably Christianity) endorse values similar to mercy or forgiveness. Subscribers to these systems of beliefs would be more willing to commit their personal resources to benefit the lives of those who have succumbed to substance abuse. In response to opponents of state-funded drug rehabilitation programs, these people may argue that everyone makes mistakes, and might even suggest that everyone has a right to amend such errors and compensate for past mistakes.


While both of the above claims operate within each of us to some degree, political discourse tends to separate itself from values and focus on states of affairs. However, an inquiry into this application of utilitarian thinking finds that it, as well, invokes aspects of the above ideologies.

The Justice Policy Institute at published a report in 2004 which contrasted the treatment and incarceration of substance abusers. “Treatment or Incarceration?” demonstrates more utilitarian decision-making when discussing how to deal with substance abusers, examining the costs and benefits of various options. I’ll follow-up by reiterating some of the central points of the report, and relate the findings back to TROSA.

The report assumes that removing substance abusers from our communities is an important goal and has inherent benefits (even if those benefits are in preventing harms). The dispute asks whether temporarily relocating these people to detention facilities is more or less effective at achieving this and other relevant goals (including minimizing cost) than attempting to rehabilitate some of the abusers.

In 208, the New York Times reported that, nationally, it cost an average of $23,876 to incarcerate a person for one year; although, the article points out that that number varies significantly between states. As an example, reported that it costs TROSA $62.22 to support one person each day, which amounts to $22,710 per person per year.

This number has more significance beyond its being lesser than the cost to hold someone in prison. This cost may also be seen as an investment. If TROSA can spend $22,710 for four years, knowing only about 17% will relapse, and none will be re-incarcerated, the state will not have to spend the additional funds needed for many people in the prison system who never effectively rehabilitated and thus found their way back into prison.

Furthermore, because TROSA is funding about 90% of its operations (we’ll estimate), the government is only paying around $2,271 per year ($9,084 total) to rehabilitate a substance abuser and significantly decrease the chances he or she will find trouble with substances again. Notably, The Justice Policy Institute also concluded that rehabilitated abusers are significantly less likely than normally incarcerated abusers to find further legal trouble, which would, of course, amount to further costs.

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