It seems straightforward enough. When you’re placed on probation, you are given a list of conditions. Violate one of those conditions and your probation is revoked. Instead of resolving your charges in the community, where you can work and be with your family, you’ll be sent back to prison.

Refraining from recreational drug use is almost universally a condition of probation in South Carolina. That seems to make sense, too. After all, using illegal drugs would be committing a new offense, and we don’t want probationers to commit new offenses. Moreover, people who abuse drugs appear to be more likely than others to commit other crimes, like shoplifting or theft.

The problem with making non-drug-use a condition of probation is that not everyone can do it. Addiction is a disease, after all, with a predictable disease progression. That disease progression almost always includes relapse after an attempt to quit. Should we be revoking people’s probation for an activity they essentially can’t avoid?

Consider the case of Julie E. of Massachusetts. Addicted to fentanyl, as so many people are these days, she was convicted of theft and placed on probation.

She immediately began working to quit fentanyl, and she did all right. She voluntarily entered into an intensive all-day outpatient treatment program. On top of that, she got a prescription for Suboxone, a drug that quells opiate cravings.

Partway through her program, she relapsed. She got back on her feet and asked her doctor for a stronger version of Suboxone. She got back on the wagon, as we would hope she could.

Then she was drug tested, as part of her probation. That single slip-up was not considered a misstep on the road to recovery, as it might have been. It was considered a violation of her probation.

Julie was sent to prison. There, she had no access to any form of drug treatment, much less a type aided by Suboxone.

How did society benefit from sending Julie to prison instead of giving her a chance to get her life together? Should a slip-up – one that every drug treatment professional would tell you is a normal part of recovery – result in criminal sanctions?

Today, our society is struggling with how to deal with drug abuse. Wouldn’t a harm-reduction strategy that places treatment above punishment be more effective? Not only could it decrease our prison overpopulation, but it could also save lives.