A smart investment

March 29, 2004

SHERRY EWARD was a 19-year-old high school graduate taking courses at Dundalk Community College when she started using heroin. She dropped out of school with one semester left and spent 20 years chasing her next fix. Her stints in jail - for prostitution, theft, credit card fraud, drug possession - taught her something, she says now: "What I learned in jail was how to be a better criminal."

Tirease West started using drugs when she was 14. She's 37 now, with two kids, no high school diploma, a rap sheet that includes grand theft (for shoplifting), and a short lifetime of drug use - heroin, crack cocaine, marijuana.

Their stories are grim reminders of what drug addiction can do to a teen-ager, a family, a community. But these two Baltimore County women are among the lucky ones. Today they are in the Baltimore-based I Can't, We Can residential drug treatment program, where they will spend a full year taking classes, attending therapy sessions, learning a trade.

Sending nonviolent drug-addicted offenders to treatment instead of jail isn't just the right thing to do - it's the smart thing to do. In Maryland, it costs about $20,000 a year to keep somebody in jail, according to the Justice Policy Institute; drug treatment programs cost less than half that, and chances are far better that a functioning, independent adult will be the result. In 1999, more than 40 percent of the people sentenced to prison in the state were drug offenders - that's not just thousands of lives wasted, it's millions of dollars.

The Maryland Senate this week will vote on a proposal that would make it easier for judges to divert nonviolent offenders from prison to treatment and enable prisoners to make that transition more quickly.

The good news is that there's very little opposition to this bipartisan measure - it passed the House of Delegates with only one dissenting vote.

The bad news is that there's a real question as to whether funding will be available to make certified programs available to those who need them.

These are tight times in Maryland, but shortchanging this initiative would be just shameful, because it's such a good investment.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, a RAND Corp. study has found that "every dollar spent on treatment to control cocaine saves $7.48 on reduced crime and regained productivity," and a study in Washington state found that drug treatment outside of prison offers $8.87 of benefit for every dollar invested.

Drug offenders who don't get treatment will return to crime, and they will return to jail. Today, in Baltimore alone, thousands of probationers in need of treatment are not being helped because there are simply too few places for them to go. But make no mistake: This is not just Baltimore's problem, and ultimately the remedy serves not just offenders, it serves us all.

The drug-treatment alternative bill is something the General Assembly can't afford to give mere lip service to - the stakes are too high.

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