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Study: Replacing prison terms with treatment could save billions in criminal justice costs

January 15, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Gary Zarkin, PhD

Nearly half of all state prisoners are drug abusers or drug dependent, but only 10 percent receive medically based drug treatment during incarceration, according to a news release. Untreated or inadequately treated inmates are more likely to resume using drugs when released from prison, and commit crimes at a higher rate than non-abusers.

The study, completed by researchers at RTI International and Temple University and published online in November in Crime & Delinquency, reports that the savings are driven by immediate reductions in the cost of incarceration and by subsequent reductions in the number of crimes committed by successfully-treated diverted offenders, which leads to fewer re-arrests and re-incarcerations. The criminal justice costs savings account for the extra cost of treating diverted offenders in the community.

“Substance abuse among offenders continues to concern policy makers because of its high prevalence and its effect on criminal behavior,” said Gary Zarkin, Ph.D., vice president of the Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice Research Division at RTI and the study's lead author. “Given the obvious burden on the criminal justice system and society caused by substance abuse within this population, diverting offenders to effective and targeted substance abuse treatment leads to less drug use, fewer crimes committed, and costs savings.”

The findings were based on a lifetime simulation model of a cohort of 1.14 million state prisoners representing the 2004 U.S. state prison population. The model accounts for substance abuse as a chronic disease, estimates the benefits of treatment over individuals’ lifetimes, and calculates the crime and criminal justice costs related to policing, trial and sentencing, and incarceration. 

According to the model, if just 10% of eligible offenders were sent to community-based treatment programs rather than prison, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion when compared to current practices. Diverting 40% of eligible offenders would save $12.9 billion. 

The authors also address a concern common with diversion programs, which is that instead of being incarcerated, offenders are released into the community where they may commit additional crimes. Their analysis showed an immediate, short-lived increase in crimes, however, by the end of the first year, fewer crimes were committed, generating cost savings.

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I believe that the most effective diversion programs would follow the modified therapeutic community model that begins with civil confinement / assignment to a residential phase of the program and through active / effective participation, the client would earn priviledges and earn their way back through less intensive modules spanning 24 months. Done right, these programs are cost effective because the "residents" maintain the facility, prepare their own food, etc. by earning jobs. Done right, the modifed TC becomes a "microcosm" of society where residents hold jobs, earn status, live treatment (not just attend it) and do recover... it works. I know because I have been a part of the recovery of thousands through this model.

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