Even on a smaller level, logistics present their own challenges. As the ProJo’s Elizabeth Gudrais pointed out in her coverage of the recent House Finance Committee hearing, the state will need to shut an entire cell block, rather than just moving a few offenders into treatment, to realize significant cost savings.
Given this complexity, perhaps it’s not surprising that House Finance Committee chairman Costantino is short on specifics when asked about the state’s likely direction. “Ultimately,” he says, “the goal here [is], you have to have some savings. If you don’t have savings [with the prospect of helping to diminish crime], I don’t know what the goal would be.”
In its December 2005 report, the Council of State Government included a variety of recommendations, including reducing probation and parole revocation rates; enhancing the Department of Corrections’ ability to conduct assessments, including those for substance abuse; increasing the use of parole in Rhode Island, and focusing parole release on low-risk offenders whose re-entry will be more successful on intensive parole supervision
It helps that Rhode Island doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. In Arizona, for example, voters backed initiatives in the late ’90s to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison to probation and drug treatment. While the initiatives were backed by billionaire financier George Soros, an ardent advocate of drug reform, the results could win over the stingiest conservative: an Arizona Supreme Court study found that the program’s first year saved $2.5 million and that 75 percent of those monitored stayed off drugs.
Ultimately, though, the combination of the serious state budget deficit, the absence of a quick fix (as in past years), and increasingly widespread recognition of the shortcomings of the current approach could offer the state’s best hope of starting to move beyond the war on drugs.
“It’s like a festering boil. It’s come to the breaking point,” says Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich, a doctor at Miriam Hospital who has worked with injection drug users and ACI inmates. “We’ve got deficits and record rates of incarceration. Why? Because we’re not doing a good enough job treating addiction.”
While Rich is keenly aware of the practical elements of treatment — including the possibility that Providence might receive some of the $10 million that Soros has pledged to aid such efforts — he says another piece is crucial for overcoming the failed policies of recent decades.
The reliance on imprisonment in the US is well documented. About one in every 32 Americans is in prison, in probation, or on parole.
Yet despite this staggering figure, we’re not very clear in our collective minds, Rich says, about why we lock people up. Is it to punish them, to separate them from society, or to dissuade them from committing crime? The general view, he says, is, “These are disposal people, and it’s OK to lock them up.” Similarly, many people might question why taxpayers should pay for drug treatment for offenders who brought their habit upon themselves.
The answer, says Rich, “depends on your perspective in terms of moral judgment, but the truth is, you’re going to pay now or you’re going to pay later” — between additional crime and incarceration, or what sure seems like a better way of doing things. 

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Ian Donnis: idonnis@phx.com

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