A better bargain

May 14, 2007

In a perfect world, a repeat nonviolent drug dealer who is also a drug user should receive treatment. A bill passed by the General Assembly aims to address this population but provides no additional money for treatment. That's troubling - and it's one of the reasons Gov. Martin O'Malley is threatening a veto. But the solution is not to retreat from a modest sentencing change, it's to allocate more money for drug treatment.

Maryland is slowly moving in that direction. A recent study by the Justice Policy Institute, a group that advocates for drug and sentencing reforms, found that admissions to drug treatment through the state's criminal justice system increased by 28 percent from 2000 to 2004, a period that included then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s push for more treatment for nonviolent, low-level offenders.

Those instincts are right, but the treatment infrastructure is still woefully inadequate. The state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration is spending about $130 million, most of it distributed to local jurisdictions that generally use the money to help noncriminal substance abusers. There are fewer than 1,000 in-patient beds for drug treatment statewide, including beds for court-ordered residential treatment. Baltimore alone has at least 40,000 addicts.

But even with such a gap between supply and demand, does it make sense to continue putting all manner of drug offenders in prison - at an annual cost of more than $20,000 each? The proposed bill would allow trial judges to make eligible for parole after 2 1/2 years certain second-time nonviolent drug felons who ordinarily would face 10-year mandatory minimum sentences.

The target offender is a drug user who sold drugs to support his habit. Proponents of the bill insist that the affected population is small and would be well-screened by judges and parole officials who, before releasing an offender, would certainly take into account whether necessary treatment was available.

Mr. O'Malley is putting an additional $5 million into drug treatment, but none of the money is for expanded residential services, and it's barely a drop in the bucket of what's needed.

Mr. O'Malley shouldn't veto the bill, but either way the state should seriously re-examine spending priorities. Though state money is hard to come by, investing more of it in treatment for low-risk drug offenders is a better bargain than prison - and an investment that the state can't afford not to make.

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