How can the criminal justice and drug abuse treatment systems reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases among drug abusing offenders?
Individuals involved in the criminal justice system have disproportionately high rates of substance use disorders and infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In fact, 14 percent of HIV-infected individuals in this country pass through the criminal justice system each year (Spaulding et al. 2009). Other infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and tuberculosis, also are pervasive in the criminal justice system.
This overrepresentation also provides an opportunity to integrate treatment and improve outcomes for both substance use disorders and infectious diseases. Research shows that treatment for drug abuse can lessen the spread of infectious diseases by reducing high-risk behaviors like needle-sharing and unprotected sex (Metzger et al. 2010). Identifying those who are HIV+ and starting them on HAART treatment could not only improve their health outcomes but also decrease HIV spread (Montaner et al. 2010).
It is imperative that offenders with infectious diseases be linked with community-based medical care prior to release. Offenders often have difficulty negotiating access to health services and adhering to complex treatment protocols following release from prison and jail. One study found that simply helping HIV-infected inmates complete the paperwork required to get their prescriptions filled upon release significantly diminished treatment interruption, although improvement was still needed, since fewer than half had filled their prescriptions within 2 months of release (Baillargeon et al. 2009).
Community health, drug treatment, and criminal justice agencies should work together to offer education, screening, counseling, prevention, and treatment programs for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases to offenders returning to the community.