Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why Prisons Continue to Fail

In 1998, CASA released its landmark report, Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America's Prison Population, revealing that four out of five of America’s 1.7 million prison and jail inmates were substance involved in 1996. This report provides an update of that work, finding that despite growing evidence of effective strategies to reduce the prevalence and costs of substance-involved offenders, the burden of substance misuse and addiction to our nation’s criminal justice system actually has increased. Today 2.3 million adults are behind bars in America; 1.9 million are substance involved and almost two-thirds (64.5 percent) meet medical criteria for an alcohol or other drug use disorder.

Governments’ continued failure to prevent and treat addiction actually increases crime and results in a staggering misuse of government funds; in 2005, federal, state and local governments spent $74 billion in court, probation, parole and incarceration costs of adult and juvenile substance-involved offenders. In comparison, federal and state governments spent only $632 million on prevention and treatment for them.


This eye-opening report provides additional insights into why prisons continue to struggle with high recidivism rates. Only 11 percent of inmates are receiving treatment, thereby virtually ensuring that they will fail while on parole and end up as a recidivism statistic. Given the current budget and prison population crisis, treatment options will become even more rare.

The report also shows that alcohol abuse is by far the drug most commonly associated with the "controlling offense" (the crime that landed the offender in prison). Many of these cases involve technical violations while on probation or parole.

While the report contains lots of valuable information, one reference that is particularly insightful is that the failure of our current policies and practices is actually creating new crimes and criminals. Many people have defended these policies on the grounds that public safety is a primary responsibility of government. But as I have argued here and elsewhere, not only are our policies failing to address the problem, they are making the problem worse.

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