Economic Reform for Democrats and Republicans Alike

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

As election season approaches, it seems as if Republicans and Democrats will never agree on anything. Yet here’s a step we can all support: replacing incarceration with substance abuse treatment for non-violent offenders.

In this weekend’s New York Times, Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow aptly put a price tag on incarceration. He doesn’t mention, however, that every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment can deliver a return of $12.00 or more in reduced incarceration and health care costs. With all the federal funding that currently supports the criminal justice system and collateral crime expenses, it is easy for other vital spending areas – education, housing, and health, for example – to get lost in the shuffle.

What many people don’t realize is that the cost of crime is also the cost of addiction; according to the Council of State Governments, 80 percent of state prisoners report a history of substance abuse. Remember, this is 80 percent of an increasingly large prison population: One in every 100 American adults is currently in a state or federal prison. This is not the global norm. “The United States now imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world,” points out Virginia Senator Jim Webb. “Also, the composition of prison admissions has shifted toward less serious offenses. Nearly six in ten persons in state prison for a drug offense have no history of violence.”

What are we accomplishing by imprisoning non-violent, low-level drug offenders instead of offering treatment? We are wasting taxpayer dollars, disregarding human behavior patterns, and fueling the rate of criminal recidivism. Without proper treatment, these offenders are released from prison only to resume their criminal behavior to support their drug habits – 50 percent will be rearrested for committing a crime within the first year. Thus continues the vicious cycle of substance abuse and incarceration.

This is a major problem with some simple solutions. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported that only 1.9 percent of 2005 federal spending on substance abuse went to prevention and treatment, while 95.6 percent went towards “shoveling up the wreckage” – namely, putting people in prison instead of getting them help. We need to flip this statistic, because doing so will save billions of dollars and improve millions of lives.

Today, increased substance abuse treatment and community-based alternatives to incarceration should be considered economic necessities. They are not only cheaper than imprisonment; they are also more effective, fundamentally fair, and considerate of the human condition. Treatment is an option in which both parties win – and all it takes is the political courage and bipartisan behavior necessary to enforce change.

Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO

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7 Comments

  • I want to say that I’m in recovery and now an intern in the field of Substance Abuse Rehabilitation. As an individual that used drugs to the point of abuse and now on the other end of the spectrum. I find the steps being taken in the field of treatment instead of incarceration a major deterrent to future or repetitive drug abuse and jail terms for individuals falling into this criteria. My goal is to organize a Major Push toward enlightening ‘at risk youth’ so that the declination of our prison population can be stemmed from the root. I totally believed that in enlightening and educating our youth about the detriments and finality of any drug use will better prepare them when dealing with life’s issues surrounding experimentation with drugs and alcohol, peer pressure to use, and depression issues which cause use as well as many other factors that lead to substance use and abuse. I stand together with the other Phoenix House Staff and Residents in the undertaking of such great responsibility.


  • Approximately 85% of what is ‘produced’ in prison will eventually be released back into society.Thus the success or failure of corrections will be societies reward, or nightmare.
    Alternative treatment opportunities to address the vicious cycle of addiction can reduce the perpetual expenditure of warehousing an offender while giving him new skills to redirect his life, values and forge a new future for himself.


  • Obama pledges to treat illegal drug use as much as a public health concern as a criminal justice issue. Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s drug czar, acknowledges the problem has been a lack of focus on prevention and treatment. Considering we indeed rank #1 worldwide in incarceration, this approach is long overdue. Those of us in the field of recovery, have loved ones still suffering, or work with the one in four children affected by addiction, are hopeful. Obama’s plan recognizes that the U.S. has a primary responsibility to reducing its own drug use. Crucial is more like it.


  • Great read, thanks for the info!


  • Ocala has a horrible drug problem and most of them are legal prescription drugs llike Oxycontin and Methadone which kill so many ppl it is sad.


  • Being incarcerated will not stop a individual from using cause you can get drugs in prison what needs to be done Is allow that person to address what made them to drugs in the first place. So if they are placed in treatment and they work on their behavior i feel that they will address their desires to use more in a structed environment than being locked away.


  • I am in favor of offering treatment rather than jail sentences. I am a recovering addict 61 years old. I got sober in 2004 and was sent to jail for probation violation; I had overdosed in 2004 and was out of my mind at the hospital and bit the doctor. I was charged with 6 charges and went into treatment in 2004. I plead guilty to one count of simple assault and battery and was given a year suspended sentence.
    I went underground after I was attacked by a gang and was sent to jail for the year when I surfacedin 2008. I had already been sober 3 years and the year in jail was a bit over the top for a 60 year old man.
    I am still sober but the criminal justice system in this country is not doing anyone any good putting them in jail for addiction and mental illness.
    I started an NA Group at the jail and found that alot of the inmates were there for drugs and psychological problems. It would make more sense to treat addicts rather than put them in jail.
    The jail was a waste for me; I had already gotten sober and was 60 years old. Many of the inmates were happy I started the NA Group. In this day and age I couldn’t believe they didn’t have an NA Program for inmates.



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