Ouachita Correctional Center Warden Patrick Johnson believes the war on drugs is a battle that must be fought.
It's a costly battle, though.
Of the 1,081 prisoners incarcerated at OCC, about 30 percent are booked on drug charges. But Johnson is quick to point out that's not a true number. People arrested for violent crimes or property crime most likely are there because of drugs.
"Our biggest offenses are property crimes and domestic violence. It's a safe bet to say a lot of those property crimes and domestic violence has some roots in drug abuse. For a lot of those crimes, drugs factor in one way or another," Johnson said.
Approximately 630 inmates — 60 percent of OCC's population —are pre-trial detainees. The parish doesn't receive any reimbursement for housing these prisoners. The state pays about $25 a day to house Department of Corrections prisoners.
Of the 630 pre-trial detainees, about 26 percent face drug-related charges.
"That's anything from possession to distribution to manufacturing a meth lab. You hear about people spending long periods of time in jail for possession of marijuana, but that's not the case here. If they are here on a simple possession charge, it's not their first or there is some extenuating circumstance to it. Probably around 80 percent of our inmates are repeat offenders," Johnson said.
The estimated cost per inmate is $31 a day at OCC.
Multiply that number by the number of inmates jailed on drug charges, and the annual cost for housing drug offenders in Ouachita Parish is $1.9 million.
"That's a very conservative estimate of the impact of drugs and the social cost. I'd say when you get down into the details of those other crimes you'll see the influence of drugs there," Johnson said.
The U.S. criminal justice system spends $56 billion annually for the incarceration of drug abusers. About 48 percent of all federal inmates are in prison for drug crimes, with an estimated 1.5 million arrested on nonviolent drug charges, according to the Department of Justice.
Pundits have debated for decades over the war on drug's failures and successes and the need for changes in the criminal justice system.
"As far as the war on drugs ... it's a war we're fighting even if it were a losing war. Just because you are losing a war doesn't mean it's not worth fighting. We see all these bad statistics, but you have to consider how things would be if we weren't investing our resources into it," Johnson said.
Monroe criminal defense attorney Bob Noel has a different opinion on the nation's war on drugs.
"The current state's correction budget outstrips funding for schools. Over 60 percent of those incarcerated are for nonviolent drug offenses. You also have to factor in the cost of supervision once they are out of jail as well. We have learned no lessons from the misguided war on drugs, and now we are paying the price," Noel said.
The Louisiana Department of Corrections is responsible for the custody and care of adult offenders across Louisiana. Just over half of Louisiana's approximately 39,000 inmates are assigned to the state's 12 correctional facilities. The remaining offenders are assigned to parish facilities and work release centers. DOC's Probation and Parole division supervises an additional 70,000 offenders.
It has an annual budget of more than $666 million, with an average cost per inmate of $19,637.
Most offenders housed in parish detention centers are at the cost of taxpayers, Noel said.
"Statewide the crush of drug cases is bankrupting the criminal justice system. Public defense offices are going broke because of excessive caseloads and low funding," Noel said.
Fourth District Judge Sharon Marchman sees the implications of drug and alcohol abuse on the community from the number of people who come before her and the children she has to remove from parents who abuse or neglect them because of substance abuse.
In the early 2000s the parish tested every inmate who entered the facility for drugs. It was a nine-month endeavor just to see how prevalent drug abuse was in the community. More than 80 percent of people arrested tested positive for some form of narcotics.
"Virtually everyone who came in was using drugs, and that was an indicator they were using at the time of the offense. That's a huge number, and nothing indicates to me it is any less than that now," Marchman said.
The best way to address the problem is to focus on helping people overcome their substance abuse before they wind up with criminal charges. That has proven difficult with constant budget cuts to health care, including substance abuse and mental health care programs. Addressing truancy also is a focus, since many convicts began their path into the criminal justice system skipping school, Marchman said.
Not everyone takes advantage of mental health and substance abuse services offered in the community. Sometimes it takes a few trips to prison to wake people up, but Marchman said most people would prefer treatment outside the criminal justice system.
"We need to have a community where people who want good quality substance abuse treatment can get it. But if you continue to take money away from services in the community that will translate in more people arrested for crimes. It's a simple question of economics. When you try to deliver services through the prison system it's more expensive," Marchman said.
Reaching youth before drugs take over their lives and programs that provide treatment and rehabilitation to those addicted are the only chance at winning the war, Johnson said.
OCC offers programs to help alcoholics and drug abusers overcome their addiction, but they have to want to make that change to succeed, Johnson said. OCC's rehabilitation efforts are supported by volunteers from local churches.
Support services also are needed once an inmate leaves prison to ensure they receive life skills training and secure employment which increases the likelihood they do not return to jail.
"When we hear later down the road they've fallen back into the drug habit and got arrested for the same stuff, it's demoralizing. But you have to constantly remind yourself of the flip side. There's also that person who worked hard and used these programs as a foundation to build on. You have to remember a life change like that brings ups and downs. Just because we may lose a battle we always have to remember we're still trying to win a war," Johnson said.
January 10, 2015
Scott Rogers | The News-Star
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