On a cold and overcast October day, thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about drug and alcohol abuse, and to help chart a course where those affected by addiction are treated as individuals in need of help, and not simply warehoused as criminals.
Celebrities, musicians, and other speakers impacted by addiction appeared at the UNITE to Face Addiction rally on Oct. 4 to urge a compassionate approach to treating addiction, and to launch a campaign aimed at creating public policy that will help reduce the number of lives dependent on drugs and alcohol.
“Writing people off as worthless is not a Christian value,” Craig DeRoche, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president for policy and advocacy, told the gathered crowd. “It is not a moral value, and it certainly isn’t an American value.”
DeRoche knows firsthand the struggles that come with addiction. After being elected speaker of the house for the Michigan House of Representatives at the age of 34, he made national headlines with two alcohol-related arrests. Following rehabilitation, DeRoche has committed himself to promoting effective methods to treat and encourage others who struggle with addiction, and to help remove the stigma that comes with that.
“[I]n the justice system we pretend that the only people struggling with addiction are the so-called ‘low-lifes’ or poor in drug infested communities,” DeRoche said. “The truth is, by percentage there is the same amount of addiction in the professionals who run our schools as those they teach, in our police force as those they patrol, in our justice system as those they serve. As a percentage of population, addiction is a constant—yet we pretend that we are simply locking up ‘those people’ and that the judge, jury, and prosecutor have no exposure to addiction personally in their own families or loved ones.”
The large number of individuals occupying jails and prisons across the country because of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses is of particular concern to Prison Fellowship. Such imprisonments are largely responsible for the enormous prison population spike of the last three decades. Even more concerning—the men and women arrested for these crimes often do not receive effective treatment to recover from their addictions, but are instead locked up with dangerous criminals, learning bad habits and making new acquaintances that often lead to more serious crimes upon release.
“[F]or too many the justice system and our health system seems to stand in the way of us finding the real solution rather than helping us,” DeRoche concluded. “Today we are working to unite and change this! Through our stories and relationships we can truly change this country for the better and I pray that we will do this together.”
Justice Fellowship, Prison Fellowship’s public policy arm, works to reform the criminal justice system so that punishment is not merely punitive, but with the goal of restoring men and women to their communities and their families. To this end, Justice Fellowship has promoted a number of reforms to current drug policies, such as eliminating mandatory minimums for drug offenses, granting greater judicial discretion in sentencing, and improved addiction recovery programs. To learn more about the work of Justice Fellowship, visit www.justicefellowship.org.