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Balancing Public Safety with Fiscal Responsibility

With the news full of stories about budget crises at both the state and federal level, the main concern is how to reduce government spending to balance the budget. The Right on Crime initiative claims to offer a solution to cutting criminal justice budgets while reducing offenders’ recidivism rates, which in turn produces an additional savings in crimes not committed.

Right on Crime believes that solution is drug courts, where non-violent offenders charged with drug possession are diverted away from the traditional legal route of criminal court, felony conviction, and incarceration:

More than just another type of court, drug courts represent a fundamental shift from incarceration as the primary means of punishing minor drug offenses to mandatory treatment for those offenders willing to take responsibility for their actions, using prison only as leverage to ensure compliance.

Even the White House agrees:

A decade of research indicates that drug courts reduce crime by lowering rearrest and conviction rates, improv­ing substance abuse treatment outcomes, and reuniting families, and also produces measurable cost benefits.

In the 1970s, conservatives decided that getting tough on crime meant prosecuting and incarcerating everybody who broke the law. While the sentiment was understandable, three decades of results highlighted a flaw: non-violent offenders — often drug users — came out of prison as violent felons, committed violent crimes upon parole, and returned to prison within two years.

This led to what Right on Crime researchers Marc Levin and Vikrant Reddy call an “unsustainable growth in prison construction.” As most states struggle to balance budgets this year, many are looking at shrinking the prison budget.

Levin says this makes it even more important that we look at other alternatives. For example, Levin says geriatric parole is one option, since the elderly are physically less able to commit crime. Another possibility is diversion for teenagers who commit property crime like burglary, but this requires another important element: Levin wants more input from victims in deciding how to handle each case.

Levin says: “Prison does well at incapacitating people.” Reddy adds: “Locking up violent offenders remains the best solution to protect the public.” Says Levin: “It’s all about striking the right balance.”

The latest available Department of Justice (DOJ) data from 2008 show that 18.4% of all state prison inmates are drug offenders (251,400), with a mean incarceration of 15.2 months.

According to Levin and Reddy, this represents an opportunity to reduce prison and recidivism. Citing DOJ data, Levin wrote:

Drug courts are reducing recidivism both in Texas and throughout the nation. Texas offenders completing drug court programs have a 28.5 percent re-arrest rate compared to 58.5 percent in the control group. Even including those offenders who failed to successfully complete the drug court program, the re-arrest rate is 40.5 percent. Similarly, the incarceration rate of offenders who complete drug court programs is only 3.4 percent after three years compared with 12.0 percent for all drug court participants and 26.6 percent for the control group.

Levin compares this to “regular” inmates: “50% go back to prison within three years after release. Prison doesn’t serve as much of deterrent to your average inmate.”

A Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that among released convicts with at least 10 prior arrests, 77.3% were rearrested and 52.8% were reconvicted of a violent crime within three years of release. As prior arrests decrease, so do recidivism rates (see table below). The “harder” the convict, the less prison serves as a deterrent.

In 1996, the National Institute of Justice compiled a cost estimate of each major crime, putting a price tag on the total cost, including tangible costs like medical care and lost earnings, plus intangibles like “pain, suffering, and lost quality of life.” Converting their findings to 2011 dollars, the FBI four major violent crimes cost as follows:

  • Murder – $4,480,662;
  • Rape – $132,591;
  • Robbery – $12,192;
  • Aggravated Assault – $36,577.

A small reduction in recidivism translates into a major societal savings. For example, in 2009, these violent crimes cost an estimated $111.5 billion. A one-half percent reduction — assuming that drug courts would have this modest influence on recidivism — translates into about $560 million in societal savings for violent crimes not committed in 2009 alone. This amount would increase over the years, because those not “saved” from the catch-release-reconvict cycle would continue to commit additional crimes in the future. Additionally, as new convicts not “saved” by drug courts are added each year, this number will increase exponentially. Within 3-4 years, the annual savings via drug courts becomes many billions.

Levin notes that drug courts cost 75% less than incarceration. “It currently costs about $18,300 annually per prisoner, while drug courts cost about $3,000.” This means that drug court can process about six drug offenders for the cost of one incarceration.

Reddy says that drug courts pay for themselves. “Using drug courts in lieu of criminal prosecution and incarceration saves money. Because they’ve been successful, we now have extra prison beds. In Texas, all three budget proposals (governor, Senate, House) include shutting some prison space down. There’s no reason to direct tax dollars towards them when they’re not needed.”

As for being tough on crime, Levin and Reddy say drug courts require personal responsibility. Chemical dependency treatment is usually mandatory, as is restitution. Staying out of prison offers many positive motives: e.g., remaining with family, being able to work, not losing voting rights.

Levin says one important difference between drug courts and regular probation is that a judge oversees the drug court probationer, instead of a probation officer who may have a heavy caseload. The judge has the ability to deliver immediate consequences, such as revoking probation or referring to treatment. This immediate feedback lends itself to reinforcing the message of personal responsibility.

Returning to victims’ rights, being put on probation via drug court can have a positive outcome as well. For example, in Texas, probationers paid $46.8 million in restitution in 2008, compared to $501,000 by inmates and $1.2 million by parolees.

Reddy says drug courts are a diversion program to offer a way to stay out of prison. Levin says depending on the situation, in-patient or out-patient treatment programs are both valid options. Both note that if the offender declines court-ordered treatment, the judge can revoke probation/deferment immediately.

Levin notes: “Many drug courts only take first time offenders. They do a risk assessment and see who’s appropriate for diversion.”

Reddy sees drug court as a way to keep juvenile drug offenders out of the prison system, where they risk becoming hardened criminals and costing society even more: “About 50% of all high school students have tried an illegal drug. We want to reduce that figure without incarcerating 50% of high school students.”

Reddy believes options like drug courts are a win-win: “People often leave prison worse than before they went in. Prisons are graduate schools for crime. Regardless of the analytical model you use, it’s clearly less expensive to limit recidivism, as more offenders become productive members of society.”

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