GOP LEGACY: Nixon’s policy emphasized treatment, while Reagan raised the focus on incarceration.
Treat the real problem
It’s easy to see why a heightened emphasis on treating drug addicts became the focus of a House Finance Committee hearing earlier this month. While keeping someone locked up at the ACI costs about $40,000 a year, a slot in residential drug treatment (which might be used by three people over the course of 12 months) costs $20,000 for the same amount of time. Even with relapses along the way, treatment remains a lot cheaper than locking people away.
The need for treatment is particularly relevant since — as those working in the criminal justice field are well aware — there’s a strong connection between criminal behavior and alcohol and drug use. Neil Corkery, executive director of the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Association of Rhode Island, estimates that 60 percent of inmates at the ACI have some kind of addiction problem.
Yet while about 13,000 Rhode Islanders are currently receiving state-funded treatment services, about four times as many are going untreated, Corkery says.
A December 2005 report by the Council of State Governments cited three main reasons for Rhode Island’s growing prison population — which reached an all-time high of 3868 in mid-January: “1) a large number (about 3500) of persons being re-incarcerated for failing the terms of probation; 2) large numbers failing to comply with court orders; and 3) a declining parole release rate.”
More fundamentally, ACI inmates with drug and alcohol addictions mostly go untreated during their time at the state prison, making it likely that they will resume their addictive behavior following release and commit new crimes to support their habit.
“There are some programs in the prison, but clearly not enough,” says Sol Rodriguez, executive director of the Family Life Center on Broad Street in Providence, which aids inmates in making the transition from the state prison. While people have to be ready to accept treatment, she notes, “A lot of it is the resource.” And if treatment is unavailable, “you’re likely to go back to using within the first few weeks. The problem doesn’t go away — you’re still an addict.”
“There are a lot of people who are paroled to treatment and end up sitting in prison, because treatment is not available,” Rodriguez adds. And, as she notes, there are very few state-funded treatment slots for those without health insurance.
Ellen Alexander, the ACI’s assistant director of administration, calls expanding treatment options for offenders “a potential answer whose time has come.” While the prison offers some treatment programs, there are “certainly not as many as we need,” she acknowledges, and there are waiting lists for many of them.
A preliminary recidivism study showed that of 384 offenders who received treatment and were released in 2004, only 17 percent had returned to the ACI. The finding — a much lower rate of recidivism than the norm — would “seem to indicate that drug treatment would be a good use of resources,” Alexander says, adding that the public would be safer if more addicts can break their habits.
Although reformers are encouraged by such messages, the prospects for change come into question when one considers how long similar statements have been made.
About seven years ago, for example, former US drug czar Barry McCaffrey told a New York audience, “We cannot arrest our way out of the problem of chronic drug abuse and drug-driven crime.” In his last report as drug czar, McCaffrey touted the effectiveness and cost benefits of drug treatment.
Still, even though federal funding for prevention and treatment has increased in recent years, the emphasis remains fixed on trying to keep drugs from coming into the country. Of President George W. Bush’s proposed $12.7 billion Office of National Drug Control Policy budget for fiscal 2007, for example, the biggest chunks are for “disrupting the market”: an Andean counter-drug initiative ($721.5 million); providing Afghanistan counter-drug support ($297.4 million); and “Secure Border Initiative” ($152.4 million).
As a result, the underlying problem, posed by the few million cocaine and heroin addicts in America whose chronic habits go untreated, remains unaddressed.
Strangely enough, we have to reach back more than 30 years — to Richard Nixon — to find a president who backed a more effective drug policy. In 1971, as journalist Michael Massing recounts in The Fix (Simon & Schuster, 1998) Nixon created a federal drug prevention office that made drug treatment available to all those who wanted it, sparking serious and rapid decreases in overdoses, in drug-related hospital visits, and in crime in such cities as New York and Washington, DC.

Tilting the balance
The Family Life Center’s Rodriguez credits Governor Carcieri with having made a significant investment in reentry efforts, including a discharge-planning program for minimum-security inmates at the ACI. There are other positive glimmers, from US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy’s advocacy for health insurance parity for those with mental illness, to the growing recognition that a different approach to crime is needed.
Making change on this front is very difficult, though, particularly when it involves a bureaucracy spread among different branches of state government.
Additionally, offenders often have difficulty finding housing and employment after their release from prison, additional factors — besides drug or alcohol use — that complicate efforts to make them into productive citizens.

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