Needed: more treatment

April 20, 2006

Six years ago, California voters opted to put more low-level drug offenders in treatment rather than behind bars. Recent studies show that the decision paid off, saving the state millions of dollars in reduced prison costs, with no simultaneous spike in violent crime. Though similar drug offenses are handled somewhat differently in Maryland, the larger lesson still holds - nonviolent drug users and sellers need much more treatment.

California's so-called Proposition 36 mandated treatment for many nonviolent first- and second-time drug offenders instead of prison. One study calculated that taxpayers saved $173 million in the first year and $2.50 for every $1 invested in treatment since then. Another study showed that imprisonment for drug possession decreased by 34 percent, or about 5,400 prisoners, and predicted violent crime increases have not materialized in California.

Although Maryland has not gone so far as to mandate treatment, a 2004 state law does promote more treatment rather than incarceration for drug offenders. Unlike California, Maryland does not usually incarcerate people with small quantities of drugs in their possession, concentrating more on those caught with enough drugs to distribute. Still, Maryland's nonviolent drug offenders, from low-level distributors to shoplifters and petty thieves, are better off in treatment than in prison.

The state's budget for 2007 will include $130 million for the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration to distribute among local jurisdictions for a combination of treatment and preventive services. In addition, the state has added $1.2 million for some specific local priorities. But while this increased investment in substance abuse services is welcome, there should still be more focus on addicts who need the most expensive services, such as residential treatment and multiple treatments.

The General Assembly recently failed to give judges more official discretion in drug sentencing, but the new budget does provide an additional $1 million for treatment in those cases where judges can determine that a drug offender is better off getting help to kick his habit rather than going to prison. According to the latest available federal data, Maryland's inmate population dropped by about 500 prisoners in 2004 - and some of that decline is attributed to more drug offenders being diverted into treatment.

That's a step in the right direction, but with at least 75 percent of state prisoners having some kind of substance abuse problem, it's still a drop in the bucket.

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