One Simple Way to Save Taxpayers $7B Annually

By Paul Gaita 05/15/14

Giving drug offenders treatment instead of prison time benefits us all.


The “war on drugs” carried out during 1980s has resulted in a critical situation in America’s prisons. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.2 million individuals behind bars in this country, and more than half of those at federal level are serving time for drug charges. At the state level, nearly half of all prisoners have been locked up for nonviolent offenses. The cost of this quixotic pursuit: states had paid $44 billion on prison expenses by 2007 - a 127 percent increase from 1987. During the same period, expenditure for higher learning rose only 21 percent.

Despite these staggering numbers, the zero tolerance policies of the period continue to wreak havoc in our social system, as evidenced by a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which revealed that more than 3,000 federal prisoners currently serve life sentences for non-violent crimes, with 79 percent of those individuals incarcerated for non-violent drug charges. More than 18 percent of them are serving life without parole for their first offense.  

Though both the federal and state governments have been slow to repeal many of these draconian laws, growing opposition from representatives of and adherents to both parties have spurred the rise of numerous programs and proposals that give alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses. An estimated 67 percent of Americans believe that the government should offer treatment for offenders facing jail time for illegal drugs, including 51 percent of all Republicans who responded to the Pew Center’s research. 

Such programs are believed to reduce the nation’s massive prison population, as well as the financial toll taken each year to house prisoners, which as of 2013 stood at nearly $7 billion, or a quarter of the Justice Department’s yearly budget. Research conducted in part by Temple University and published in the online journal “Crime & Delinquency” found that only ten percent of state prisoners who abuse drugs or are drug-dependent receive medically based treatment while incarcerated. If that ten percent had received treatment in community-based programs instead of serving jail time, the prison system would save $4.8 billion - nearly the amount paid out to the Bureau of Prisons. Those savings would nearly triple if just 40 percent of eligible offenders received the same sort of treatment.

Diversion programs such as drug courts have offered a first line of defense by keeping low-level drug offenders out of the state prison system. Eligible participants receive a year of treatment under close supervision while pursuing full-time status as either an employee or student. The results have been extremely positive - 75 percent of all drug court graduates remain arrest-free for at least two years after leaving the program, and have saved taxpayers between $3,000 and $13,000 per client - but research from the Urban Institute suggests that for such programs to be truly effective, offenders facing serious charges at the federal level would need to be enrolled. Currently, less than one percent of federal drug cases are referred to drug courts. 

Attorney General Eric Holder has thrown the weight of the Justice Department behind diversion programs at the federal level while also calling for an extensive overhaul of sentencing guidelines. The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators including Democrats Patrick Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse and Libertarian Rand Paul, also aims to reduce mandatory minimums at the federal level. But as the drug court program has shown, the greatest force for change regarding drug laws has come at the state level. Twenty-seven states reduced their drug laws between 2009 and 2013, including lowered penalties for possession and use of illegal drugs and the abolishment of automatic sentence enhancements. 

New York’s notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws, which set mandatory long prison sentences for drug offenders at all levels, received a substantial overhaul in 2009, including the implementation of Article 216 of the Criminal Procedure Law, which allowed judges to offer drug court alternatives to non-violent offenders. Texas, which spent over $2 billion on prison expenses between 1983 and 1997, found itself out of space in its jails by 2007 and in need of $900 million to continue operating their current prisons. Leaders from both parties joined forces to offer a range of diversion programs that not only reduced the state’s crime rate but also allowed them to close three prisons.

Similar efforts in Maryland, Arkansas and 13 other states produced a dramatic drop in imprisonment rates between 2007 and 2012, with California leading the way with a 26 percent reduction. The Golden State has frequently led the way in offering diversion programs as an alternative to their prison situation, which numbered more than 130,000 individuals in 2009. Proposition 36, or The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, saved California taxpayers between $10 and $13 million by releasing from custody over 1,000 nonviolent inmates. The recidivism rate was less than two percent - below state and national averages.

However, statistics such as these have not convinced all state lawmakers to pursue similar revisions to their drug laws. In Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam recently signed into law a bill that would prosecute pregnant women for using drugs. The media is also calling on Florida legislators to repeal a law that hands down a mandatory three-year sentence for the possession of seven hydrocodone tablets without a valid prescription.

But as greater numbers of the population embrace the idea that treatment and diversion programs will produce more positive and financially responsible results than jail time, the hope is that stories like these are the exception to the rule, rather than the norm.

Paul Gaita is a Los Angeles-based writer. He has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Amazon and The Los Angeles Beat, among other publications and sites.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.