A better way

Our view: Decades of imprisoning addicts has led to more and more prisons

April 06, 2009

Maryland spends more than $1 billion a year on locking up criminals, and what do we get for it? Prisons overflowing with low-level drug offenders who keep the revolving door spinning as they continue to commit minor crimes to support their habits. It doesn't have to be this way.

That's why Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear recently signed a law sending hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. The Bluegrass State expects to cut the $20,000-a-year cost of housing a prison inmate in half by incarcerating minor felons in county jails. It will use the savings to set up more than a dozen substance abuse treatment programs inside those facilities at a cost of about $1.3 million. Over time, officials expect prison populations to gradually decline as the rate of recidivism drops.

It's an idea that's also been taken up by Kansas, Montana and Pennsylvania, all of which expect to save millions by instituting treatment programs. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has introduced a bill to create a national commission on prison reform, saying it's a waste of money to put nonviolent offenders in prison rather than help them get off drugs.

The idea that fixing the nation's prisons may require a radical rethinking of the problem is central to a new report sponsored by the Baltimore Open Society Institute, a nonprofit urban advocacy group. It calls for substance abuse treatment for anyone who wants it, more residential and outpatient treatment facilities and better cooperation between government agencies and service providers so people can get treatment and counseling when they need it.

None of this is really new. Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called for treating addicts rather than imprisoning them back in the 1980s - and was zapped for being soft on crime. Since then, Maryland has established 33 special courts to divert criminals with drug problems into treatment, but these programs can't meet the demand. .

Maryland lawmakers should take a lesson from Kentucky and other states that are looking for more effective ways of dealing with burgeoning inmate populations and hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders who would be better off in treatment than in prison. That's not being soft on crime, it's being serious about finding solutions that work.

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