Drugs and money

February 04, 2004

THE NUMBERS don't lie: One of the most effective ways to reduce crime is to get more criminals into drug and alcohol abuse treatment. It just makes sense. Studies suggest three-quarters or more of criminal defendants have a history of substance abuse.

Yet despite the obvious payoff, politicians never seem as willing to make as great an investment in treatment as in building new prisons and beefing up police departments. Although Maryland already spends tens of millions of dollars on substance abuse programs each year, that is relatively modest compared with the need for them. State officials estimate that in any given year, more than 205,000 Maryland residents who could benefit from treatment won't get it. On average, perhaps one in four will.

Into this debacle now rides Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has proposed an $8.5 million program intended to move more addicts from the criminal justice system into substance abuse treatment. At first glance, it's not much of an effort. Community-based treatment programs have gotten bigger budget increases in years past. But there's more to Mr. Ehrlich's plan than money; it's about moving in a different direction entirely, and that's intriguing.

First, the governor wants to see more done for prison inmates, not only by identifying their abuse problems when they enter the system, but also by offering some degree of treatment in the months prior to their release. This is part of what the administration calls RESTART (Re-entry Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment) and should give inmates with a history of substance abuse greater access to counseling and group therapy inside the walls. The program also puts more care into placing inmates into substance abuse programs in the outside world when they are released - and more closely tracking the results.

Second, the governor wants to change the way people in the criminal justice system are placed in treatment programs and how they are assessed and tracked as well. It's a fairly arcane area, and Maryland's 24 subdivisions have different ways of doing these things. Part of the intent is to make it easier to divert nonviolent criminal defendants into treatment instead of jail. The relationship between the courts and the drug treatment community is uneven. Mr. Ehrlich wants a bigger bang for the state's buck.

Both of these efforts are laudable. It's particularly gratifying to see a Republican governor call for a more progressive view of incarceration - to leaven punishment with a bit of rehabilitation. And it's also welcome news that Mr. Ehrlich wants to see a more efficient, more effective treatment system.

But the real measure of Mr. Ehrlich's commitment to drug abuse treatment will be how well he finances these programs in future years. That's the next step. All the efficiency in the world won't create more beds in residential treatment programs - only money will do that.

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