We’ve spoken at length in the past about addicts and alcoholics with legal issues, and we’ve made copious mentions of the fact that those who commit drug-related offenses are sometimes asked to seek addiction treatment in lieu of a prison sentence. Those who do not understand the disease of addiction might be inclined to believe that the notion of treatment instead of prison is unfair, that addicts who commit crimes are getting off easy. What these people fail to understand is the inherent nature of the mental obsession that addiction causes. When combined with the lack of inhibitions experienced while under the influence, it really isn’t that surprising that so many addicts wind up in jail.
But there are also those who are given incredibly long sentences for possession alone, with no other crimes to accompany that charge. In these cases, prison seems like a misstep. There is a chance to help those who truly need it, rather than locking them away in a correctional facility where they may not recover. Sending chronic substance abusers to treatment instead of prison allows them a chance to heal and reform. Not only that, but sending addicts and alcoholics to treatment could also possibly save billions.
We don’t mean billions of lives, although certainly many addicts who take their recovery seriously will find themselves living much better lives than they had been living before. What we mean is that embracing treatment as the primary correctional measure for addicts and alcoholics who break the law could potentially save billions of dollars. What’s shocking is that this has actually been known for years, yet many addicts are still getting sent to jail instead of getting the help they need. Below, we’ll discuss the many benefits of sending addicts and alcoholics to treatment instead of prison. Whether you’re an addict in need or simply a citizen who wants to see your tax dollars spent wisely, you might find the following information to be incredibly eye-opening.
How Treatment Could Save Billions in Costs
The word “billions” is far from an exaggeration. Rather, it references a study led by Research Triangle Institute (RTI) into just how much money could be saved by prescribing treatment instead of prison. Gary Zarkin, Ph.D., lead author of the study and vice president of RTI’s Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice Research Division, noted the probability of savings when addressing the need for research into this matter.
“Substance abuse among offenders continues to concern policy makers because of its high prevalence and its effect on criminal behavior. Given the obvious burden on the criminal justice system and society caused by substance abuse within this population, diverting offenders to effective and targeted substance abuse treatment leads to less drug use, fewer crimes committed, and costs savings.”
Zarkin and his team established a model based on the number of eligible substance abusers within the criminal justice system. In order to uncover the amount of money that might be saved by sending addicts to treatment instead of prison, RTI calculated the average costs of incarcerating this category of individuals, taking into account the costs of trial, sentencing, policing, and other relevant criminal justice expenditures. What they found was that $4.8 billion could be saved if even 10% of eligible offenders were sent to treatment instead of prison. When calculating the savings of sending 40% of eligible offenders to prison, the figure at which his team arrived rose to $12.9 billion.
Zarkin stated his recommendation thusly:
“Our results clearly demonstrate how diversion from prison to community-based treatment will benefit the United States and the criminal justice system. To be more useful for policy makers, this model should be implemented on a state level, which would provide more specific data on criminal behavior, the prevalence of treatment programs and state criminal justice costs.”
In addition, a previous RTI study found that treatment in general (even within prison walls) has the propensity to lower crime rates and thus reduce spending. It was found that improvements to prison-based treatment programs could save up to $17 billion. This means that improvements in prison-based treatment programs and an increase in addicts sent to treatment instead of prison could combine for savings of approximately $29.9 billion.
Other Benefits of Treatment Instead of Prison
To see how offering treatment instead of prison may yield greater benefits than simply financial savings, let’s actually turn our attention away from that issue for just a moment and onto the second study we mentioned. Quality prison-based treatment has the potential to save $17 billion, specifically by lowering crime rates. The implication here is that criminal offenders with substance problems are less likely to continue criminal activity after they have received proper care. This benefits more than addicts and alcoholics with legal issues. This benefits taxpayers, communities—society at large.
It makes sense that treatment would have a stronger impact on criminal behavior. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), criminal offenders who suffer from addiction need more than mere sanctions—they need to be in an environment in which positive behaviors are rewarded. Sending them to treatment instead of prison will accomplish this goal. There may be questions as to whether or not a person attending a court-ordered treatment program would truly demonstrate the willingness necessary to become sober, but NIDA addresses this as well:
It is true that legal pressure might be needed to get a person into treatment and help them stay there. Once in a treatment program, however, even those who are not initially motivated to change can become engaged in a continuing treatment process. In fact, research suggests that mandated treatment can be just as effective as voluntary admission to rehab centers.
Cynics refer to treatment facilities as “revolving doors,” but the real revolving door is the courthouse. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes that untreated criminal offenders will often see the inside of a courtroom so often that the judges will come to recognize their faces. This is why SAMHSA Administrator Charles Curie claims:
“Providing alcohol and drug abuse treatment instead of jail is one of the surest ways to put drug-dependent adults on the path to recovery and to prevent juveniles with drug problems from becoming adult criminals.”
In 2006, SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) was helping to fund 62 treatment drug courts to ensure treatment instead of prison for those who needed it. And while their numbers have raised, many addicts and alcoholics are still receiving incarceration with no channels through which they might acquire the help they actually need. If we want to save tax money and reduce crime rates, a change must be made.
A Call to Action Must Be Made Today
Ten years ago, even the courts themselves were getting tired of seeing addicts and alcoholics put behind bars. According to National Drug Court Institute (NDCI) Director C. West Huddleston III:
“Judges and prosecutors were fed up with seeing the same drug- and alcohol-dependent people appear before the court over and over and over again. They recognized that their traditional responses, whether it was jail, prison, or a probationary sentence, weren’t solving the underlying problem. Dependency was the driving force behind their criminal behavior.”
Not only do many addicts and alcoholics become repeat offenders, but it happens at such a massive rate that the courts are overwhelmed and the criminal justice system becomes financially drained by having to deal with them all. Instead of putting tax dollars toward the repeated incarceration of individuals who are unwell, we should be offering them treatment instead of prison so that we may solve the true problem while also saving billions of dollars that could be put to more effective use elsewhere.
Many are fighting to make this change, including Amethyst Recovery. We have been working with Operation HOPE in Scarborough, ME, a program run by the police department that allows drug users to seek treatment instead of legal sanctions if they are willing to come forward to the police and turn over any drugs or drug paraphernalia in their possession. People began taking advantage of this program from the very first day it began. We heard the message loud and clear—many addicts do want to get sober. And through their willingness to do so, they saved the Scarborough police a heap of man hours and financial resources that might have been spent in putting these troubled individuals behind bars.
Groups like SAMHSA are doing what they can to spark a change in the way our criminal justice system handles alcoholism and addiction. If you recognize the need to save tax money and lower crime rates, you will do your part as well. Even a simple letter to a local government representative, or a call to your local police department in favor of programs like Operation HOPE, has the potential to go a long way. You’ll never know until you put the word out there. No one is saying that crime is acceptable, but there may be a better way to fight against it in the case of addicts and alcoholics. If you believe that more addicts need treatment instead of prison, do not hesitate to spread the word.