RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- Sending drug abusers to community-based treatment programs rather than prison could help reduce crime and save the criminal justice system billions of dollars, according to a new study by researchers at RTI International and Temple University.
Nearly half of all state prisoners are drug abusers or drug dependent, but only 10 percent receive medically based drug treatment during incarceration. 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, published online in November in Crime & Delinquency, found that diverting substance-abusing state prisoners to community-based treatment programs rather than prison could reduce crime rates and save the criminal justice system billions of dollars relative to current levels. 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.
The researchers used the model to track the individuals’ substance abuse, criminal activity, employment and health care use until death or up to and including age 60, whichever came first. They also estimated the benefits and costs of sending 10 percent or 40 percent of drug abusers to community-based substance abuse treatment as an alternative to prison.
According to the model, if just 10 percent 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 percent 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.
“Our results clearly demonstrate how diversion from prison to community-based treatment will benefit the United States and the criminal justice system,” Zarkin said. “To be more useful for policy makers, this model should be implemented on a state level, which would provide more specific data on criminal behavior, the prevalence of treatment programs and state criminal justice costs.”
The study builds on previous research led by RTI indicating that increased investment in treatment for substance-abusing prisoners can reduce crime rates and cut criminal justice spending. In a study released earlier this year, Zarkin and colleagues found that increasing and improving prison-based drug treatment programs could save up to $17 billion in criminal justice system costs.