Report: Invest in Drug Treatment Instead of Punishment

Instead of throwing drug addicts in jail, the state should invest more money in substance abuse treatment, says a report issued Thursday by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which adds that the move could provide millions of dollars in savings and improve public safety.

“You cannot cure addiction by locking it up,” said Ana Yáñez Correa, executive director of the coalition. “It doesn’t cure it; it makes it worse.” 

In Texas, arrests for drug possession have increased 32 percent in the last decade, and about 90 percent of all drug-related arrests are for possession — not dealing, according to the report. In 2011, the nearly 15,000 inmates in jails and prisons on drug possession offenses statewide cost taxpayers more than $725,000 daily. The coalition argues that providing more state resources for treatment would be less costly and would prevent crimes associated with drug use. 

Since 2007, lawmakers have directed money that would have been invested in building new facilities for a growing inmate population to diversion, probation and treatment programs. As a result, the prison population has fallen so much that in 2011 lawmakers for the first time closed a Texas prison, the Central Unit in Sugar Land. And this year, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has said lawmakers should consider shuttering two additional units.

But in the face of a $27 billion budget shortfall in 2011, lawmakers curtailed the growth of some of the diversion and treatment programs that had helped slow the incarceration rate in Texas. Without more investment in those kinds of programs, Texas prisons and jails could again exceed their capacity by 2014, according to the report.  

While Texas has one of the highest incarceration rates nationally, the report notes, it has one of the lowest drug treatment admission rates. In 2009, more than 53,500 outpatient and residential treatments slots were available statewide, and a waitlist with more than 14,000 names. Forcing addicts who are seeking treatment to wait can have dire consequences, including the commission of crimes that land them behind bars. 

Douglas Denton, executive director of Homeward Bound, a Dallas-based substance abuse treatment center, said that for people who suffer from addiction — which is classified by the American Medical Association as a diagnosable chronic disease akin to diabetes or asthma — incarceration tends to exacerbate their condition. Addicts may not have access to drugs in prison, but without counseling and treatment, they are unable to understand and deal with the underlying issues that drive the addiction. When they are released from prison, Denton said, addicts are more likely to then return to using more intensely. 

“It’s a powerful, powerful addiction, and you just can’t write it off as, ‘Oh he’s just being willful,’” Denton said. “The compulsion lives in the brain, and there’s something wrong with the chemical makeup in the brain.”

Like other diseases, Denton said, the most effective way to address addiction is with treatment.

“Recidivism is reduced tremendously when you can find somebody early in their addiction and give them these services and get them back to functioning normally,” he said.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has filed a bill that would allow judges to place low-level offenders without a violent criminal history on probation and assign them to a personalized drug treatment program. If they complete the program, the offenders could apply to the judge for dismissal of the charges and to prevent public disclosure of the offense. Ellis says the measure could save the state more than $138 million annually.

Similar bills, however, failed in 2007 and 2009 in the face of opposition from some law enforcement officials, who worried it would make prosecuting drug crimes more difficult.

“We know when it comes to reducing drug use, treatment and diversion programs simply work better. It's worked here in Texas with our Drug Courts, and it's worked in other states that have made the responsible shift in policy,” Ellis said.

In addition to measures that divert addicts who get caught up in the criminal justice system from incarceration to treatment, the coalition’s report urges more state investment in preventive substance abuse treatment and mental health care. The report recommends improved statewide coordination of risk assessment for offenders, better training for criminal justice workers and less harsh sanctions for drug-related probation violations.

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