If there’s a bright side to a financial emergency, it’s the opportunity it presents to stop spending money on things that aren’t working.
Consider substance abuse. Researchers and therapists understand that addiction is an illness, but because of its association with property crime, the political system’s primary response has been through police and prisons.
Massachusetts, like most states, escalated this battle in recent decades. Its prison population grew 368 percent from 1980 to 2008, according to the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Drug Policy Task Force, while the population of county jails jumped by 522 percent.
That comes at a price: Massachusetts last year spent $1.4 billion incarcerating people. That’s more than the Legislature spent on public higher education.
Are we getting our money’s worth? In a word, no. The crime rate and the rate of drug abuse have held pretty steady despite putting more people behind bars.
The rise in prison population and its increased cost are fueled by a sharp increase in nonviolent drug offenders carrying longer sentences under the state’s mandatory minimum and “truth in sentencing” laws enacted in the 1990s. Getting “tough on crime” seemed like a good idea at the time, but in practice, it has meant drug addicts get little or no post-release supervision. Their addictions go untreated; they are ineligible for work release programs that help them get a fresh, legal start on the rest of their lives. They finish their sentences and are dropped back into the same neighborhoods they left – and too often fall into the same old patterns of crime and substance abuse.
There are alternatives. Drug treatment and education programs in some county jails have been proven to reduce recidivism. Drug courts, in which nonviolent drug offenders can receive treatment and training under the direct supervision of a judge empowered to put them behind bars if they flunk a drug test or miss a mandatory meeting, have a proven record of success.
Put aside the fact that substance abuse treatment saves the lives of people plagued by chronic addiction. The savings to taxpayers ought to be enough to force a reconsideration of policies that haven’t worked: It costs $48,000 a year to keep an addict in prison, compared to $4,000 to $5,000 for outpatient treatment.
That math has convinced lawmakers in at least a half-dozen states to reform their sentencing practices since the recession brought a steep drop in state revenue. Just as the Massachusetts Legislature was wrapping up its formal sessions for the year, it brought a big step forward on Beacon Hill: The state Senate approved a bill granting parole eligibility for nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.
Unfortunately, the House recessed before taking up the Senate bill, and there is no indication when, if ever, its members will get the chance to vote on a similar measure. During the recess, voters should let them know they must not miss this opportunity to adopt policies that save money and save lives
December 2, 2009
The Patriot Ledger