States Eye Drug Treatment Instead of Prison


State budgets are starved for cash and many state prisons are stuffed to capacity, causing policymakers to hunt for money-saving alternatives to incarceration.

Several states have taken note of policy actions in Arizona and California and are considering sending non-violent drug offenders to substance abuse programs rather than prison.

In Kansas, a drug treatment diversion bill recently won legislative approval, and the issue is on the radar in Wisconsin, Washington, Arkansas, Hawaii, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and New Mexico.

If signed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), the Kansas bill would require some non-violent offenders to undergo drug treatment for up to 18 months instead of prison. It would go into effect November 1, 2003. The legislation would free-up 194 prison beds by the end of 2004. Currently, each prisoner costs the state about $20,000 per year to feed, clothe and house, whereas drug treatment programs would cost between $3,200 and $6,400 per year, said Barb Tombs, executive director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission. Prison capacity in Kansas is 9,000, but the state estimates it will have 9,044 prisoners by the end of 2003.

"(The bill) isn't soft on crime. We just think it's good policy," Tombs said.

In other state activity:

  • Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) wants to transfer 400 non-violent offenders into drug treatment programs for up to 90 days, said Bill Clausius, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. The proposal is one of many correction reforms outlined in the governor's 2003-2005 budget. "The ideas have been around, but some of the (budget) pressure on state agencies has produced the evolution of these ideas. It isn't so much the partisanship as it is the fiscal situation," Clausius said. 
  • In Washington, Gov. Gary Locke (D) wants to implement a year early a law approved in 2002 that would shorten drug sentences and end post-release supervision of low-risk offenders. Washington state Rep. Al O'Brien (D-Mountlake Terrace) said the state may also divert "hundreds" of prisoners to drug treatment programs in July 2003 because of the state's budget crisis. O'Brien sponsored a diversion bill this session that died in committee.
  • In Hawaii, former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano (D) signed a diversion bill in 2002 mandating that first-time offenders convicted of drug use or possession be sentenced to treatment with probation, not prison.
  • New Mexico passed several sentencing reforms and expanded drug treatment programs in 2001 and 2002, but a bill sponsored by state Sen. Manny Aragon (D-Albuquerque) failed recently in the Senate. It will most likely be reintroduced next year.

The country's inmate population, including prisons and jails, jumped from 1.4 million in 1990 to 2.1 million in June 2002, exceeding the 2 million mark for the first time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Twenty-one percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates are considered non-violent drug offenders.

Overcrowding and budget woes have made lawmakers "more willing to consider alternatives to prison", said Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based non-profit that advocates sentencing reform.

Both supporters and opponents of diversion programs agree rehabilitation helps stop recidivism and the "revolving door" at jails and state penitentiaries.

But the cost of implementing such programs in the short-term can undercut the benefits, critics said. Opponents worry softer sentences could jeopardize community safety.

"(Drug treatment programs) can be cost-effective in the long-run, but in the short-term they're an investment. So if states are just looking to save money, this might not be as cost effective as just opening up the prison doors," Mauer said, pointing out that beginning late last year, Kentucky and Michigan have released hundreds of prisoners before their terms ended. "I wouldn't consider (drug treatment) a low-budget item. When you match it up against incarceration it may save a bit, but it also puts drug offenders in a riskier position on the street," said Nola Foulston, a district attorney in Wichita, Kan., former prosecutor and board member of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA).

The idea of treating non-violent drug offenders instead of jailing them is not new. But the struggle by most states to balance their budgets is forcing policy makers to accelerate what might previously have been back-burner policies.

Legislative focus on sentencing reforms is coming full-circle in part because of budget woes, Mauer said.

"There's a recognition that we've reached a record high prison population ... But I wouldn't say the punitive era is over," Mauer said.

Voters in Arizona and California approved sweeping ballot measures requiring drug treatment with probation instead of jail for low-level offenders. Their programs have served as models for other states.

And in New York, opponents of the states' 1973 Rockefeller laws hope the budget crisis will spark a long-awaited rollback of some of the harshest mandatory drug sentencing laws in the country. Gov. George Pataki (R) and the state legislature have voiced support for changing the often-called draconian' laws, but no action has been taken, Mauer said.


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