14 Jul Incarcerating Drug Offenders Costs Taxpayers Billions
It’s becoming increasingly common to hear people declare the war on drugs a failure. President Richard M. Nixon is widely credited with ushering in the “war” in the ’70s, but the problems it was designed to address remain. In fact, it’s arguably created more of an issue when you consider the burgeoning prison population, which has risen by over 500 percent in the last 30 years. It could be countered that people who break the law should be in jail, but this point can’t be accepted lightly, because of the tremendous financial cost of keeping offenders in jail. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rates in the world, so perhaps it’s time to seriously consider the question: Do drug users need jail time, or treatment?
The Prison Problem and Drug Abuse
The Fix makes a stark comparison between the money that goes into prisons vs. higher learning. From 1987 to 2007, prison expenses increased by 127 percent (reaching $44 billion), compared to just a 21-percent increase in higher learning expenditures. Of the 2.2 million people in jail in America, more than half are there for drug offenses; and at the state level, almost half of the prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, 3,000 federal prisoners are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes, and 79 percent of those are for non-violent drug charges. The 2013 budget for the Bureau of Prisons went up to almost $7 billion, accounting for a quarter of the Justice Department’s annual budget.
Treatment Over Punishment for Drugs: The Potential Savings
Research suggests that only 10 percent of state prisoners who are dependent on drugs or abuse them receive medically based treatment while in jail. If instead of serving time in jail those addicts were enrolled in community-based treatment programs, the savings to the prison system would total $4.8 billion. It’s important to bear in mind that this is only 10 percent of eligible prisoners—if that number were increased, the savings would be magnified.
Other options exist, such as “drug courts,” which are known as diversion programs. These involve providing non-serious offenders with a year of treatment while they look for full-time employment or seek an education. Those in the programs are supervised closely and are given random drug tests and progress reviews. So far, the results are extremely positive, with 75 percent of those enrolled going at least two years after leaving the programs without serving more jail time. For each successful client, taxpayers save $3,000 to $13,000. However, their effectiveness would be maximized if more eligible offenders were enrolled, including those with more serious charges being handled at the federal level. Only 1 percent of those cases are transferred to drug courts.
Americans’ Views on Drug Law
The traditional reliance on older, more draconian and apparently ineffective laws has led to a shift in public opinion regarding drug offenders. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Center, 67 percent of Americans think the government should offer treatment to anyone faced with jail time for drug offenses. Although this is traditionally seen as more of a liberal stance, this included just over half of all Republican respondents. Across the political spectrum, people are realizing that the current strategy isn’t working.
Legal Changes Across the Country
At the federal level, the Justice Department’s Atty. Gen. Eric Holder is a staunch supporter of drug courts and has joined calls for a re-evaluation of sentencing guidelines. Similarly, proposals like the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 aim to reduce minimum sentences at a national level.
These proposals are positive signs, but many of the steps in the right direction have come at the state level. From 2009 to 2013, 27 states scaled back the punishments in their drug laws, advocating for reduced possession penalties and scrapping automatic sentencing enhancements. New York’s drug laws were revised in 2009, allowing the use of drug courts for non-violent offenders; and in Texas, where the prison system ran out of both space and money to deal with drug offenders in 2007, a cross-party agreement introduced diversion programs to solve the problem. Three jails have since been closed in Texas and the overall crime rate in the state is down.
In similar decisions, 15 other states reduced their imprisonment rates between 2007 and 2012. The biggest decrease was in California, where the rate fell 26 percent. The state also saved taxpayers over $10 million by releasing more than 1,000 non-violent inmates after the passing of the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000. The 2 percent rate of re-offending among these former inmates is below both national and state averages.
Not All Good News
Despite the much-needed changes to the current system sweeping through many states, others are pushing in the opposite direction, including in Louisiana, where a 99-year maximum sentence for repeat heroin dealers has been passed; and Tennessee, where pregnant women who use drugs will be branded criminals under a new law. For all supporters of humane drug law, however, the good news is that these counterproductive measures are becoming the exception rather than the rule. Many Americans and lawmakers are finally realizing that addicts (particularly the non-violent users) need treatment, not jail-time.
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