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