Why Are We Sending Pregnant Addicts to Jail?
by Aleksandre McMenamin
Jail not the answer!
A new Tennessee law, which went into effect in 2014, sends pregnant women to prison for narcotics use. Essentially the law defines that the act of taking drugs while pregnant falls under aggravated assault, and could land an individual up to fifteen years in prison. This new law comes as a response to the growing rate of NAS (Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome), which is a disorder in which newborn infants are born with an addiction to dangerous substances.
Children born with NAS usually have it for a few weeks before they are cured of it by medical professionals. If a child is born with any traces of illegal substances in their system, the mother will be arrested. Recently, several states have passed similar laws that carry criminal penalties for pregnant addicts. But how well do these laws work? Well, put simply...
These laws are absurd
The problem with these laws is that they fail to see addiction as the disease that it is. The CDC labels drug addiction as a chronic brain disease, which makes it exceptionally difficult for an individual to quit taking a drug, even if they want to. Because of this, these laws have very little effect on the number of pregnant women who are using drugs. Instead, many pregnant women are failing to seek prenatal care for fear of prosecution. This has caused some pregnant women to endure childbirth outside of the safety of hospitals, and has also driven many to seek unwanted abortions.
Fails to offer a solution
To put it plainly, while these laws acknowledge a growing problem, they fail to offer a solution, and instead create vastly more problems. It incentivises neglecting to get adequate healthcare, which isn’t good for the mother or child. While most states with these laws offer the option to seek rehabilitative healthcare as an alternative, this offers little option for poor women who can’t afford to pay for treatment. Also, most of the states with these laws, such as Tennessee or North Carolina, have only a negligible number of poorly funded healthcare facilities that offer rehabilitative care to pregnant women, and almost none of these facilities are in the vicinity of rural women, whom will be left with no options.
Have affected women who didn’t even know they were pregnant
To add to the absurdity of these laws, there is no set limit of how far back in your pregnancy they go into effect. For example, a North Carolina woman recently sought a pregnancy test at a state sponsored health care center. Her pregnancy test came back positive, but also showed that there were traces of marijuana in her system. Because of these recent laws, she was arrested and charged with assault, even though she wasn’t aware she was pregnant at the time of using drugs.
Wrong road for dealing with drug addiction
If we want to really reduce the staggering, and rather depressing, numbers on drug use in this country, this is not the road we should be taking to do it. Criminalization has never deterred drug use. For decades, this misplaced ideology has prevailed in terms of how we choose to legislate reactions to the problem. In those decades, drug use has skyrocketed and the massive illegal drug industry has grown more and more profitable.
In the meantime, our prisons are getting more and more full of people who suffer from the disease of addiction whom are not receiving the treatment they need to be healed. Arresting and prosecuting these nonviolent drug offenders is costing us mountains of money in legal fees and costs to run larger and larger prisons. This clearly isn’t working. The truth is that supporting government programs that help addicts get treatment would be much cheaper in the long run, and would begin to create productive members of society who could pay back into the tax system that helped them get better.