At the time of their arrest, 36% of prisoners were using illegal substances and nearly 83% of state prisoners and 73% of federal inmates have a history of illegal substance abuse. Only a small amount of them receive any kind of treatment for their addiction. This creates a revolving door that is both taxing on the United States justice system and costly to taxpayers. This is evident in states like Kansas which recently passed legislation that provides treatment to inmates in their state prisons after they experienced an increase in drug-related incarnations that cost the state $84 million in 2019.
Sergeant Mark Gerardot of the Fort Wayne Police Department says that when he became a police officer, he had a tough-on-crime approach and believed that people arrested for illegal drug possession should serve jail time but his views changed. “After putting people in jail for a few years, I started feeling that jail wasn’t the solution to our drug problem,” says Gerardot. “I wanted to get those people into treatment for their substance use disorder so that they didn’t keep overdosing and ending up in jail which is the only way we’re going to be able to break the cycle.”
Research shows that treatment for substance abuse disorders, particularly behavioral health counseling, can reduce drug use and drug-related criminal behavior. According to one study, the average prison time for a drug offense costs $26,188, compared to $3,143 for substance use treatment. Not only is treatment a more cost-effective use of taxpayer dollars than prison – it’s also more effective. Instead of wasting millions of dollars, North Carolina lawmakers lowered sentence lengths for low-level drug-related offenses and increased access to addiction treatment. This resulted in a 25% drop in prison admissions and an overall decline in reported crime by 29% from 2011 to 2019. It also saved taxpayers $543 million.