OP-ED: Prison Drug Treatment Would Reduce Crime, Recidivism, Budgets; Deficit Commission Should Heed Savings by Treatment, Recommendations in National Drug Control Strategy


By Robert Weiner and Daphne Baille

See op-ed published in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Two million, three hundred thousand Americans are in prison today—number one in the world.  That’s up  from 500,000 in 1980.  Seven million Americans are now in the criminal justice system—incarcerated, on probation or on parole—also the most in the world.  Imprisonment is one of the most expensive items of state and local budgets.  The cost of incarceration in the U.S. is estimated at over $60 billion dollars a year. 

Most of the increases are due to the prosecution of drug abusers starting in the 80s. Drugs were rampant during that time period; in 1980, 14% of Americans abused illegal drugs monthly.  That number is now down to 8%, but a whopping 68% of arrestees test positive for illegal drugs, according to Justice Department surveys of 30 cities. The nexus of drugs and crime is undeniable.

There is a solution other than putting drug abusers behind bars—drug treatment. Despite the fact that 68% of arrestees test positive for drugs, only 14% of prisoners receive treatment.

Photo by Steve Smedley of The Pantagraph

Marc Mauer, the director of the highly respected Sentencing Project, called the prison-drugs recidivism cycle “a 25-year quagmire.”  The Sheridan Correctional Center, a medium security facility that houses male offenders 70 miles west of Chicago, found that prisoners who completed treatment after release were 40% less likely to be arrested a year later and 85% less likely to return to prison – with counseling, job training, and supervision critical to this success.

Instead of mandatory sentencing for drug abuse, more drug treatment in prison and more “drug courts” providing treatment instead of prison should be what’s mandatory.

The Urban Institute in 2008 reported that 1.5 million arrestees meet the legal and clinical standards for drug court, which require effective treatment and supervision. Yet only 55,000 arrestees are now receiving such treatment. If all 1.5 million at-risk arrestees were treated, there would be $46 billion in savings to society.  The study reaffirms that crime is 4-6 times higher under the influence of drugs.

Former U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey calls support for drug courts everywhere in America “a no-brainer.”  We pay $25,000 a year to incarcerate someone; treatment costs a few thousand for an entire year, and many can stop after a few months as long as they have monitored counseling in prison and when they leave.

In Illinois, virtually every criminal court can be a “drug court” because State law allows nonviolent offenders to ask for supervised drug treatment instead of incarceration. Every eligible offender who takes this route saves the State $18,000 in prison costs but  treatment must be available. The State slashed treatment funding 22% last year and another 8% this year.   

The President’s National Commission on Fiscal Reform (“Deficit Commission”) is scheduled to recommend how to lower the deficit right after the November elections.  They should heed House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers’ (D-Detroit) comments at his committee’s Prison Overcrowding hearing on September 28. The bipartisan hearing was originally aimed to curb the bureaucracy and jail sentences for minor crimes like snowmobiling in the wrong place in a national park—fine to change, but hardly the major cause of prison overcrowding. 

Conyers stated, “My emphasis is directed to the way the drug war incarcerates people in the United States. What we need are drug courts diverting people to treatment, and treatment rather than mandatory sentences. [Now] there is more attention to law enforcement than treatment of the drug problem as a health crisis.”

Expanded drug treatment for offenders would take the proverbial “bite out of crime.” It would reverse overcrowding, reduce crime and recidivism, and help federal, state, and local budgets. The White House’s 2010 National Drug Control Strategy recommends more alternatives to incarceration for people with serious substance abuse problems.

Congress should heed the strategy and double the $5 billion currently budgeted for all treatment and prevention, in and out of prison.

According to a UCLA study, for every dollar invested in treatment, taxpayers save $7 in reduced crime and other benefits.  This $5 billion investment would translate to real savings of $35 billion for American taxpayers.

Did you hear that, Deficit Commission?

Robert Weiner is former spokesman for the White House National Drug Policy Office, the House Government Operations Committee, and the House Narcotics Committee.  Daphne Baille is the communications director for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), a Chicago-based justice and health services and advocacy group. 


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