Less Jail, Less Crime

SARA ENGRAM

January 19, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM | SARA ENGRAM,Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Evening Sun.

Attorney General William P. Barr announced Tuesday that the Department of Justice will be receptive to efforts by states to remove court-ordered limits on the number of inmates at overcrowded prisons.

As Mr. Barr told his audience, "The choice is clear: More prison space or more crime."

What he didn't say is that the country can't afford this harder line against criminals. More prison space will inevitably mean higher public expenditures on prisons. Where will the money come from?

More to the point: What good will it do? Already, the United States locks up more people than any other country in the world, and still the crime rate rises. Unless we abandon our constitutional principles and imprison all criminals for life -- at enormous expense -- they will end up back on the streets, once again endangering society.

Surely there are better ways of dealing with crime and, in fact, officials in Washington County think they have found at least one approach that works.

On the same day as Mr. Barr's announcement, the Washington County Criminal Justice/Treatment Coalition met in Hagerstown with county commissioners and other public officials to underscore their confidence in a program that has produced impressive results.

The membership of the coalition is worth noting in itself -- consisting of judges, law enforcement officers and health department officials. Their common interest is the county's Jail Substance Abuse Program (JSAP), a three-year-old effort that has targeted alcohol and drug abusers in the county detention center.

There are plenty of candidates; about 80 percent of Maryland's prison population has a history of substance abuse. By identifying abusers already in jail, and using their incarceration as a time for intensive treatment, the program has reduced the average length of stay in jail by half and produced a dramatic drop in the recidivism rate.

Between February 1989 and October 1991, 62 percent of the prisoners released from the Washington County Detention Center were re-incarcerated at least once (the national average is 77 percent). But for JSAP participants, the recidivism rate was a mere 22 percent.

Those statistics translate into savings for the county. At $26 for the average daily cost for one inmate, and with program participants spending an average of 171 fewer days in jail, the savings for each participant averages $4,446. Multiply that by 150, the number of inmates currently treated each year, and the annual savings climbs to $666,900.

On top of that, each participant pays $300 ($400 as of Feb. 1) to be part of the program. And, the program saves human costs of non-functional families, repeat offenses and incarcerations.

All in all, that sounds like a bargain for the JSAP's $186,000 annual cost. Even so, the program was eliminated in the state's initial round of budget cuts. Fortunately it has drawn broad support, and the funds were restored.

Given the success of the program, perhaps the questions officials should be asking is why it wasn't tried sooner. What better use of a prisoner's time than six weeks to come to terms terms with their alcohol or drug problems and confront the physical, emotional and social effects of addiction?

If they do well in the program, participants are then usually given a suspended sentence with the provision that they participate in six months of "after care," consisting of two group meetings a week, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and random testing for substance abuse.

A treatment program in a jail setting is much like the residential treatment regimens carried out in hospital or retreat locations. But Charles Messmer, who directs the program, says that JSAP may have an edge over other kinds of settings.

As Mr. Messmer notes, when a person is in jail -- even when it's not for a drug or alcohol-related offense -- it's harder to deny that there is a problem.

That was true for Pat, a middle-aged woman who landed in jail after a driving-under-the-influence conviction. Drinking had long affected her life, but until about a year before her arrest she had been able to deny it. Now she credits JSAP for helping her get back on her feet.

What really got her attention, she says, was learning about the effects of alcohol on her body as well as her personality. She realizes now she depended on it as a crutch in social situations -- a crutch that was destroying her life.

JSAP and programs like it produce plenty of these human stories -- stories that are rare from inmates who get no treatment or rehabilitation. That should be reason enough for spending precious taxpayer dollars on programs that work, rather than on lock-'em-up crusades that are, ultimately, futile.

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