Whatever one might say about the logjam in Congress, at least one element of our own state legislature is making important progress. As reported recently by the Arkansas News Bureau, the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Prevention is now tackling the difficult questions of prevention and treatment versus punishment for drug offenders. Whether Republican or Democrat, both parties have come to recognize the futility of attempting to incarcerate our way out of the drug epidemic.
As regular readers doubtless note, this topic has been well-explored on The Commercial editorial page. Even so, it bears retelling in the light of the Task Force’s latest statistics.
As reported by the news bureau, substance abuse costs Arkansans about $888 million annually. Of that, $845.6 million went to adult corrections, juvenile justice, public school education, child welfare and mental health, and public safety programs. About $38 million went to prevention, treatment and research. This means that only 6 percent of Arkansans who need help with a drug addiction actually receive treatment.
As has been repeatedly argued both here and by experts all over the globe, you cannot incarcerate your way out of a drug problem. In fact, over-incarceration can have exactly the opposite effect.
To this point, the New York Times ran a story in December titled: “For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars.” Written by John Tierney, the piece highlights an emerging consensus among leading social scientists: “James Q. Wilson, the conservative social scientist whose work in the 1970s helped inspire tougher policies on prison, several years ago recommended diverting more nonviolent drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs. Two of his collaborators, George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, have joined… (him to advocate)… more selective incarceration and warns that current policies ‘have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders’ so that they become ‘a greater risk to the public than when they entered.’”
There used to be a lot of discussion about prisons becoming so-called “crime schools.” Just as Wilson, Kelling and DiIulio suggest, prison, when used as a catch-all, can have a very strong transformative effect on inmates — just not the one we all want.
As Jeanette Moll, writing for the Crime Report observes, even Texas — a state not known for its laxity in criminal justice — has turned a corner in its philosophy of punishment. According to her recent report, Texas has diverted funding from state lockups to community-based supervision and diversions. Reallocating funding in this way better protects the public while reducing crime.
As she states, “Even with more felony offenders on community supervision in Texas, revocations are down 2.8 percent in seven years, and technical revocations have decreased 10.9 percent… as community supervision departments have been able to increase the quality and breadth of local supervision. Furthermore, more offenders on community supervision have successfully completed those requirements early, and more offenders are gaining access to needed drug treatment, which plays a role in reducing the risk of future criminality.”
As such, we applaud our state lawmakers for having the foresight to approach this issue with open minds. We’ve tried the obvious approach — much to our collective detriment. Now, it’s time for something that might actually work.