Too little, too late in prisons

By Robert Landauer – editorial columnist for The Oregonian, October 21, 2000. Not available elsewhere online.

The numbers vary little across state corrections departments: 70-80 percent of prisoners have alcohol and drug problems relating to their criminality.

Oregon’s 10,469 prison inmates fit that profile. Three-quarters have a history of criminal activity directly related to alcohol and/or drug abuse. For 45 percent, the problems are severe. For 32 percent they are moderate.

About three-quarters get some treatment before leaving prison, but that’s less than many need. “We need more intensive treatment for more people in every category,” says Gary Field, the system’s substance-abuse and mental health program manager.

Money is an issue. Anger over taxes and spending plays into cost-cutting sentiments of laymen and legislators who already are unenthusiastic about helping those who deserve punishment. Of the $840.3 million corrections operating budget, plus $190.6 million to build prisons, Oregon is spending $7.58 million this biennium on alcohol/drug treatment in prisons.

We are underinvesting. Strong evidence shows that treating inmates for alcohol and drug abuse is a smart investment in public safety.

The California Drug and Alcohol Assessment showed that each dollar spent for alcohol/drug treatment saved $7.14 in future costs, largely due to reduced crime. Crime dropped by two-thirds in the year after treatment among the 150,000 participants studied. This trend continued into year two for a smaller sample followed. The longer individuals stayed in treatment, the greater was the reduction in criminal activity among them.

RAND Corp.’s 1994 study of the cost-benefit of different ways of dealing with drug problems found that treatment is seven times more cost-effective than domestic law enforcement and 10 times more cost-effective than interdiction.

Evidence from Oregon is internationally respected as conservative and sound. “Societal Outcomes & Cost Savings of Drug & Alcohol Treatment in the State of Oregon,” a 1996 study done for the state, found that every treatment dollar saved $5.60 in future costs of law enforcement, corrections, welfare and publicly supported medical treatment.

Yearly, Oregon’s Corrections Department offers alcohol/drug education to 1,800 inmates; group treatment to 800 inmates; boot camp alcohol/drug treatment to 450; and day treatment programs to 950.

Nine months before release, 450 high-need inmates are separated from other prisoners and given intensive programs in residential therapeutic communities. Field: “Research has shown for years that something like 60 percent of offenses are committed by 6 percent of offenders. We can have the most impact on crime reduction in Oregon by targeting that population.”

Sixteen separate Oregon outcome studies over the past 12 years have shown an average of about 40 percent reduction in criminal recidivism across all programs — with some programs much higher than that. Building solid transitions from prison to community programs, an effort many years in the making, helps account for such good outcomes.

The success of Oregon’s and other prison-based treatment programs around the nation testifies that justice resources are lopsidedly dedicated to drug interdiction, arrest, prosecution and sanctions.

When we fail to invest in treatment, we lock the public into unnecessary recurring costs for arrest, arraignment, plea bargaining, trial, pre-sentencing, sentencing, probation, intermediate sanctions, jails and prisons, parole or mandatory supervision. It is warped policy to put the top effort into addressing problems after they occur.

The economic and public-safety indicators point in these directions:

  • Serve more inmates.
  • Provide more intensive levels of treatment and community follow-up to improve ability to reduce crime.
  • Shift more drug-war investment to supportive treatment in prison, where abundant evidence documents the economic benefit to society.