I was pleased to read about a new legal trend in last week's Wall Street Journal: more and more states are realizing that sending non-violent drug offenders into treatment has "proven to be less expensive and more effective" than sending them to prison.
As we've discussed, our nation has not yet realized the full potential of community-based alternatives to incarceration. Today, it seems we are finally experiencing a change in the political wind; from Kentucky to Colorado, many states are reducing penalties for minor drug offenses and are increasing spending on drug testing and substance abuse treatment that addresses the root causes of addiction problems -- as opposed to merely "shoveling up" the wreckage that these problems can cause.
Now the only thing standing in these states' way is a lack of support. Community-based alternatives will only work if there is enough funding to provide offenders with a proper balance between treatment and supervision. Otherwise, these alternative programs just won't be good enough. In states like Illinois, which is about to cut all state funding for drug and alcohol treatment and prevention programs, this deficiency will not only affect those struggling with addiction -- it will be detrimental to their families and communities as well.
Unfortunately, there are still individuals who wrongly insist that alternatives to incarceration will increase crime by "letting too many people out of prison." This is extremely implausible given the fact that treatment programs significantly reduce recidivism rates. Besides, I'm not suggesting that we free murderers and gangsters. I'm saying that sending a non-violent individual to prison for drug possession accomplishes the exact opposite of our goal: it turns that individual into a criminal.
Treatment programs provide what jail time cannot. Yes, we teach our clients discipline, but we also teach them life skills. We help them address their issues, we engage them in volunteerism, and we show them how satisfying it is to give back to the community.
This isn't indoctrination; it's long-lasting behavioral change that every non-violent drug offender deserves. These individuals are your friends, your colleagues, and your children -- we must not incarcerate them without first trying a community-based treatment alternative.
Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO, Phoenix House