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A Times Editorial

Drug treatment cheaper than filling more prison cells

There is nothing new about the connection between giving prison inmates ready access to drug treatment and reducing recidivism. Judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers all know that drug and alcohol problems are the biggest impediment to people leaving crime behind. But too many politicians have too often painted treatment programs as soft on crime, choosing tougher sentences instead. Now with tight budgets year after year, some conservative lawmakers are starting to see that Florida can no longer afford this lock 'em up approach. Legislators need to find the money to pay for more drug treatment now to achieve much greater savings in the future.

Florida has about 100,000 inmates in prison, costing the state nearly $3 billion annually. One in every 10 of those convicts has landed behind bars for drugs. But close to half the prison population is estimated to have substance abuse problems related to their incarceration. Despite the need, Florida has failed to make prison treatment programs a priority. Last year, 6,120 inmates received substance-abuse treatment. Next year the projections are that 7,324 inmates will receive treatment, a fraction of the number who could benefit from it.

Statistics demonstrate that substance-abuse treatment can be effective in reducing recidivism and helping inmates turn their lives around. During a recent meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Ron Gavin spoke about his journey through a drug and alcohol problem that destroyed a promising career as an Air Force pilot. The prison sent him to Reality House, a taxpayer-funded treatment center in Daytona Beach. There, he reformed his life, and he now has a job and a fiancee.

After Gavin spoke, lawmakers sought to shake his hand and be photographed with him. This is new territory for legislators who have championed harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and others. Drug treatment has long been at the top of the list for more progressive legislators who acknowledge how key it can be for an inmate's successful transition back into a productive life.

Now, with prison costs eating up a growing share of state revenues, and recidivism at 65 percent after five years, even the get-tough-on-crime crowd is rethinking its approach. Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is the latest supporter of Right on Crime, a national conservative criminal justice reform movement that has as some of its principles that the criminal justice system should promote treatment and that prison may not be appropriate for low-level, nonviolent offenders who could become hardened by the experience. Other well-known conservatives to join are former federal drug czar William Bennett, antitax activist Grover Norquist and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott are more likely to listen to this call. But wherever it comes from, a renewed emphasis on substance abuse treatment in prison, and the money to make it happen, would be a smart investment in the state's future.

Drug treatment cheaper than filling more prison cells 10/09/11 [Last modified: Sunday, October 9, 2011 5:30am]
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