Drug offenders make up over half of the federal prison population and a large percentage of the state and county systems, and yet locking them up doesn’t seem to have helped them or the society that put them away. The so-called War on Drugs is finally being examined in the cold light of cost-benefit analysis, and it looks deficient as a policy.
US Attorney General Eric Holder recently made note of the fact that seventeen states have prioritized funding, favoring treatment over prison construction to handle the continuing influx of drug offenders. The federal Bureau of Justice Assistance reports that those states will save an estimated 4.6 billion dollars over the next ten years.
[pullquote] According to a 2012 study, “The additional costs of treatment were more than offset by savings in other domains, primarily in the costs of incarceration.” [/pullquote] In California, the cost of imprisoning a single drug offender is almost $50,000 each year. The opportunities for rehabilitation in prison are minimal, and the exposure to a culture of criminality is counterproductive in the extreme. A drug offender who has completed his or her sentence is poorly equipped to deal with the stresses of release—lost time, a disadvantage in the job market, strained relationships with family and loved ones, poverty, etc.—and has no tools to cope or to avoid relapse. Effectively, a four-year, $200,000 lockup amounts to a setup for another expensive and useless lockup.
Treatment and prevention programs, when properly funded, have been shown to reduce relapse and recidivism rates. The incidental—or consequential—criminality associated with drug use is thus minimized, to the benefit of the former addict as well as to society at large. California’s Prop 36 initiative allows nonviolent drug offenders to be diverted to treatment instead of incarceration.