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Rogert Peters: Locking up Florida's addicts too expensive, ineffective

There are now almost 7-million adults in our country's criminal justice system, including more than 2-million persons incarcerated in jails and prisons. Well over half of these individuals have significant substance abuse problems. Yet the vast majority of persons who need drug treatment in our criminal justice system never receive these services.

The costs associated with building new jails and prisons to house those with drug addiction are enormous: $20,000-$23,000 per year for each person incarcerated. Almost 80 percent of correctional costs are linked to substance abuse, representing about 10 times the amount that states spend on substance abuse treatment, prevention and research. If uninterrupted, the cycle of drug abuse and crime jeopardizes our public health and public safety and places a significant strain on an already overburdened criminal justice system.

Florida now faces a difficult situation, with insufficient financial resources to support prison construction needed over the next five years. There are currently 100,000 persons incarcerated in Florida prisons. Florida's Criminal Justice Estimating Conference predicts the prison population will expand to 125,000 within five years. At this pace, we'll need to build 17 new prisons at a cost of $110-million per prison, with costs for new prison construction amounting to $739-million for fiscal year 2008-09 alone. We simply can't afford to continue the pace of new jail and prison construction without considering more effective alternatives.

We know that substance abuse treatment provides an effective alternative to warehousing offenders in jails and prisons. Research provides strong and compelling evidence that treatment reduces criminal recidivism, drug use, family violence, and unemployment and welfare dependence among criminal justice populations.

For example, a federally funded study conducted by the Research Triangle Institute revealed that more than 90 percent of persons completing treatment while supervised or incarcerated by the Florida Department of Corrections did not recommit a crime in the two-year followup. Department of Corrections data indicate that 97 percent of probationers who complete drug treatment in the community do not return to prison.

In the face of state revenue shortfalls, Gov. Charlie Crist has shown a willingness to examine new solutions to reduce the cycle of drugs and crime. The governor's recently released budget proposes $29-million to revitalize substance abuse treatment in prisons and for those under justice supervision in the community. A total of $281-million is provided over the next five years to fully fund drug treatment for all prisoners and probationers who need treatment. For the first time in Florida's history, this initiative provides "treatment on demand" for nonviolent offenders with addiction problems instead of warehousing them in jails and prisons.

Cost savings resulting from offender treatment can be enormous. Savings in reduced drug-related crime as a result of substance abuse treatment amount to $4 to $7 for every dollar spent. The $29-million investment in drug treatment services is expected to save $306-million in prison construction costs during the next fiscal year, with a savings of approximately $1.2-billion over the next five years.

We believe that this is a sound strategy that is long overdue, and that makes dollars and "sense" for all of our citizens. All Floridians will benefit from this change, and so many families can be helped by treating substance abuse as the disease it truly is, rather than by trying to lock the problem away in jails and prisons that we can't afford.

Roger H. Peters, Ph.D., is chairman and professor of the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida. Mary Lynn Ulrey, M.S., ARNP, is the CEO of DACCO Inc.

Rogert Peters: Locking up Florida's addicts too expensive, ineffective 04/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2008 3:57pm]
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