Drug treatment, not jail

March 11, 2004

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr., a law-and-order Republican, has made drug treatment efforts a top priority of his administration. He has focused on putting nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders into treatment instead of jail, and offering treatment to prisoners before they return to the streets. But a key aspect of the administration's initiatives now before the Maryland General Assembly is in danger of being derailed by cost-cutting, shortsighted legislative budget analysts.

Targeted for cuts is the administration's plan to enhance drug treatment and education programs for Maryland prisoners - a welcome reform of the prison system. With Maryland prisons overcrowded, and 51 percent of inmates returning within three years, the plan would redirect tax dollars toward rehabilitating offenders and stemming the tide of recidivism.

Such initiatives make good public policy and good use of state funds in these tight fiscal times.

These proposals have the potential to save real dollars, not only those spent on prison beds, but also the millions expended on lives devastated by drugs.

The administration's prison reform plan is spearheaded by public safety chief Mary Ann Saar, who has conducted an analysis of prison staffing and identified an excess of 218 correctional officer positions. She has proposed recycling those positions to drug rehabilitation and education services. But budget analysts have recommended cutting at least 75 of those positions, which would undercut reform efforts and unfairly penalize Ms. Saar for finding efficiencies in her budget and offering a sensible way to meet the changing needs of her agency.

Mr. Ehrlich's legislative proposals to get more drug-addicted offenders into treatment should be supported, not undermined. He has taken a comprehensive approach to the issue by financing treatment programs in the community and behind prison walls. The administration should further strengthen its commitment by supporting legislation proposed by prison reform advocates who want to make treatment the preferred sentence for low-level, nonviolent drug defendants instead of jail.

In California, a ballot initiative that mandated treatment for low-level drug offenders became law in 2000. Since then, five California counties have reported an increase in admissions of first-time offenders to treatment programs, according to a study by UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. The study also found that 65 percent of offenders enrolled in outpatient treatment were still in their programs 90 days out.

As they consider the Ehrlich administration proposals, Maryland legislators would be wise to require the state to undertake a similar study to monitor the use of drug diversion programs. Then they can determine whether the state's investment in treatment is indeed paying off.

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