December 17, 2007

Treatment Alternatives

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

“Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time"…well…

In the past decade, Wisconsin’s prison population has more than doubled.  A lot of that growth is the result of an increase in the number of non-violent offenders being locked up around the state.  In particular, drug-related offenses are swelling the ranks of Wisconsin inmates.  Milwaukee County, alone, experienced a 50% increase in its drug inmate population during the past five years.

Obviously, these additional men and women need to be housed somewhere.  Since 1994, our state has built nine new prisons and added hundreds of inmates to existing facilities.  Doing so has been neither cheap nor easy.  It costs roughly $28,600, annually, to incarcerate an individual.  Factor in the price of building additional facilities to accommodate the growth in the number of inmates, and the cost goes up.  Simply put, Wisconsin’s immense prison population imposes a substantial financial burden on the state.

Why, then, does it so often seem as though our state looks for ways to increase the number of people in its correctional facilities? Why make things harder for the average taxpayer? We should be looking for alternative treatment mechanisms to ease the burden on our prisons, on our corrections system employees, and, most of all, on the average Wisconsinite who foots the bill for it all.

That logic has led me to increasingly consider the viability of drug treatments courts as substitutes for the lengthy prison sentences that we now give to drug offenders.  Drug treatment courts function by quickly processing and assessing offenders and referring those eligible offenders to the hands of experienced chemical dependence, mental health, and social health professionals who work to get at the root of the offenders’ problems.  Drug treatment staff keep the court informed on the progress of those involved in the program.

The savings of such a system are considerable.  Instead of paying almost $29,000 per year to warehouse someone in a cell, our state could pay $6,100 per year to provide quality substance abuse treatment, case management, and supportive services to individuals whose criminal behavior is driven by addiction.  The unique trial and sentencing methods employed in drug treatment courts is far more cost-effective than incarceration.

Obviously, cost is not the only factor to be considered.  If drug courts don’t ultimately reduce drug use in defendants, than there’s no point in funding them.  However, studies show that drug treatment courts are actually more effective in reducing recidivism than prison.  Nationally, drug offenders re-offend at a rate of 67%.  Participants in drug courts, however, recidivate an average of only 54% of the time, a 13% reduction. 

The public and, especially, government need to at least consider drug treatment courts as an option.  They save money and they’re more effective in reducing drug using behavior.  I can’t think of two reasons better than those to implement them in our state.  With our prison population growing at an alarming rate, we’ve got to be smarter about how offenders do “the time”.