If, as conservatives and liberals agree, the most basic responsibility of government is to protect the public safety of its citizens, then the failure to treat and train the 1.2 million alcohol and drug abusers and addicts crowding America’s prisons is the nation’s most egregious display of public irresponsibility.

In America crime and alcohol and drug abuse are joined at the hip. For two decades we have been filling prisons with drug and alcohol abusers and addicts and, without treatment or training, returning them to society to resume the criminal activity spawned by their substance abuse. In 1997 more Americans were in prison, most of them substance abusers, than graduated from college. This is public policy crafted in the theater of the absurd and acted out by political demagogues.

More than 1.8 million individuals are behind bars in America: 1,130,000 in state prisons, 568,000 in local jails and 113,000 in federal prisons. Eighty percent – 1,450,000 inmates – either violated drug or alcohol laws, were high at the time of their offense, stole property to buy drugs, have histories of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, or share some mix of these characteristics. Tragically, among these 1,450,000 inmates are the parents of 2.4 million children.

Some 200,000 of these prisoners are drug dealers who don’t use drugs. The remaining 1.2 million are drug and alcohol abusers and addicts. Some would have committed their crimes regardless of their substance abuse. But hundreds of thousands are individuals whose core problem is the abuse and addiction that prompted their criminal activity. They would be law-abiding, working, taxpaying citizens and responsible parents if they lived sober lives.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University estimates that for an additional $6,500 a year, an inmate could be given intensive treatment, education and job training. Upon release, each one who worked at the average wage of a high school graduate for a year would provide a return on investment of $68,800 in reduced criminal activity, savings in arrest, prosecution, incarceration and health care costs, and benefit to the economy. If all 1.2 million inmates with drug and alcohol problems got such treatment and training (cost: $7.8 billion) and only 10 percent became sober, working citizens (benefit: $8.26 billion), the investment would more than pay for itself during their first year of work. Thereafter, the nation would receive a benefit of more than $8 billion for each year those released inmates remain employed and drug and crime free.

The potential crime reduction is also big league. Expert estimates of crimes committed by drug addicts range from 89 to 191 a year. At the conservative end, successfully treating and training just 10,000 drug addicts would eliminate 1 million crimes a year. That’s the kind of return on investment to capture the imagination of any businessman. Getting through to our politicians is another matter.

After three years studying the relationship between prison inmates and substance abuse, I am convinced that the present system of prison and punishment only is insane public policy. Despite tougher sentencing laws, on average inmates are released in 18 months to four years. Even those convicted of such violent crimes as aggravated assault and robbery are out in three to four years.

Releasing drug and alcohol addicts and abusers without treatment or training is tantamount to visiting criminals on society. Releasing drug addicts is a government price-support program for the illegal drug market. Temporarily housing such prisoners without treating and training them is a profligate use of public funds and the greatest missed opportunity to cut crime further.

Currently, we have in America a prison population the size of Houston, Texas, the nation’s fourth largest city. If we don’t deal with alcohol and drug abuse and revamp our system of crime and justice, one of every 20 Americans born in 1997 will spend some time in jail, including one of every 11 men and one of every four black men.

The first step toward sensible criminal policy is to face reality. Prisons are wall-to-wall with drug and alcohol addicts and abusers. Popular perceptions of inmates shaped by vivid movie and television images of playful Bonnies and Clydes, mafia dons like Marlon Brando who refuse to deal drugs, and psychopaths like James Cagney in the 1930s gangster films are ancient history. For eight out of 10 inmates in the 1990s, substance abuse has been the defining characteristic of their lives and criminal histories.

Appropriate substance abuse treatment has a higher success rate than many long-shot cancer therapies. It could certainly help 20 percent of the substance abusers in prison: That’s a quarter of a million criminals who could be turned into law-abiding citizens and good parents.

Substance abuse and the failure to treat it in the criminal population are tightly associated with recidivism. The more prior convictions an individual has, the more likely that individual is a drug abuser. In state prisons, 41 percent of first offenders have used drugs regularly, compared to 63 percent of inmates with two prior convictions, and 81 percent of those with five or more. State prison inmates with five or more convictions are seven times likelier than first offenders to be heroin addicts and three times likelier to be hooked on crack. Only 25 percent of federal inmates with no prior convictions are regular drug users, but 71 percent of those with five of more convictions have histories of regular drug use. The recidivism-drug abuse relationship is similar among the local jail population.

The common denominator among inmates is not race; it’s drug and alcohol abuse. Blacks are disproportionately represented in prison. Though they make up only 11 percent of the adult population, they constitute 46 percent of state, 42 percent of jail and 30 percent of federal inmates. Whites, 76 percent of the adult population, comprise 35 percent of state, 39 percent of jail and 38 percent of federal inmates. However, essentially the same proportions of black and white (and Hispanic) state inmates, 61 to 65 percent, are regular drug users.

With rehabilitation of the bulk of the prison population dependent on breaking inmates’ substance abuse and addiction, mandatory sentences – especially those that require the convict to serve the entire sentence imposed – subvert rather than promote the public safety. Corrections officials need every possible carrot and stick to get inmates into treatment, including the carrot of reduced prison time for substance-abusing inmates who successfully complete treatment and the stick of prompt return to jail for parolees who fail to participate in post-release treatment and aftercare. Mandatory sentences take away any hope of early release for entering treatment and the threat of immediate return to prison for failure to stay off drugs and alcohol. Mandatory sentences also deny judges and prosecutors flexibility to divert substance-abusing defendants into treatment, drug courts, coerced abstinence and other alternatives to prison which hold the potential of reducing recidivism and crime.

Religion (notably Christianity and Islam) and spirituality can play a role often decisive in the rehabilitation of many inmates. Inmates and treatment providers commonly cite spirituality, God, or a Higher Power as a factor in getting and staying sober, coping with prison life, successfully reentering the community, and ending criminal conduct. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs stress the role of spirituality in recovery. A study of New York State inmates in the Prison Fellowship programs founded by Charles Colson showed that inmates who were active in bible studies were less likely to commit infractions while incarcerated and be arrested during a one year follow-up after release than those who were less active or did not participate in such programs. Only 14 percent of program participants were arrested compared to the 41 percent of nonparticipants.

The expense of building and operating prisons is the 800-pound gorilla in most state budgets, with spending rising at a breakneck pace, up 28 percent in 1996, compared to a three percent increase in Medicaid spending. That year Americans paid $38 billion in taxes to build and operate 4,700 prisons 1,403 state, 82 federal and 3,304 local.

Politicians camouflage the failure of their punishment-only prisons by huffing and puffing tough rhetoric. Each year they pass tougher sentencing laws, build more prisons and hire more prison guards. These governors, presidents and legislators are like a chorus of children reciting together, “If all the king’s horses and all the kings men can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again, then give us more horses and give us more men.”

Recently politicians have rushed to cite reductions in crime as their success story. There has been a significant decline in crime in most cities and states in America. But most of that drop appears due to the lower number of drug and alcohol abusers and addicts on the street, an assessment shared by many street ethnographers who survey conditions by talking to police, drug dealers, and addicts. In turn this decrease is also due to the increased numbers of substance abusers behind bars, thanks to stepped-up law enforcement and more prison sentences.

But, politicians beware. Though you’ve put lots more drug and alcohol addicts and abusers in prison, they will be coming out, sooner than you think. Thus, a critical component of sustaining this lower crime rate is to get as many of these incarcerated addicts and abusers as possible in recovery. Indeed, failure to do so will be the greatest missed opportunity to continue to drive the crime rate down and enter the next millennium with enhanced public safety.

If Christian compassion won’t move our citizens to invest the resources needed to rehabilitate drug and alcohol abusing offenders, then maybe the realization that they are protecting their own lives and property will. By opening in the nation’s prisons a second front in the war on crime, we will save billions of dollars, make our streets and homes a lot safer and reclaim thousands of individuals to lives as responsible parents, hard workers, taxpayers, and law-abiding citizens.

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