Pubdate: Fri, 19 Nov 2004
Source: Messenger-Inquirer (KY)
Copyright: 2004 Messenger-Inquirer
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


When it comes to education or Medicaid or any number of government spending 
measures, the first response to soaring costs is that there must be waste 
to cut somewhere.

The one area, however, that seems immune to such scrutiny is the 
incarceration of state prisoners. Perhaps it's that politicians fear being 
labeled soft on crime or that, in many areas, opening a new jail or prison 
is a source of economic development, but whatever the case, Kentuckians 
seem willing to write the prison system a blank check.

Robert Lawson, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, released a 
new study recently that shows inmate population in Kentucky's prisons has 
grown by 600 percent since 1970. Over that same period, the amount the 
state pays to house prisoners has risen from $7 million to more than $300 

Let's compare what's happening with prison spending to the ongoing efforts 
to lower Medicaid costs. With Medicaid, the state is looking to shift from 
just paying the bills to managing the health of recipients. Goals include 
lowering emergency room visits, reducing unnecessary services, and 
particularly focusing on patients with asthma and diabetes, which cost the 
program about $1 billion annually.

This is a proper response to addressing soaring costs. But when it comes to 
addressing the costs of incarceration, too little attention is given to the 
root causes. Instead, the solution is to simply build more jails.

It's no secret that substance abuse is the driving force behind the spike 
in inmate population. Many people are in jail for no other reason than 
drugs. Their crime is addiction. Take away the drugs, address the 
addiction, and you're left with a person who is not a danger to society. 
Yet, when you don't address the addiction, recidivism rates show that many 
of these people will spend their lives in and out of jail -- at the 
taxpayers' expense.

This is what makes it so hard to understand why funding for programs such 
as drug courts is so difficult to obtain. A new prison in the budget barely 
draws a second look, but when the focus shifts to expanding drugs courts or 
other treatment/prevention programs, leaders say there isn't enough money.

Consider that, on average, it costs about $3,000 to put a person through 
drug court. This person is required to report to the courts, to take random 
drug tests, to hold down a job and to prove they can be a productive member 
of society. On the other hand, the average yearly cost to house an inmate 
in state prison is more than $17,000.

Clearly there are more effective and efficient ways to address substance 
abuse than simply locking people up, and fortunately, Gov. Ernie Fletcher 
and Lt. Gov. Steve Pence seem to understand this. Their work to promote a 
drug control policy that focuses on prevention and treatment is a bold and 
important effort.

But it's going to take a similar change in mind-set among legislators, 
community leaders and the public as a whole before Kentucky will be able to 
reduce its inmate population -- and the hundreds of millions of dollars 
spent to house prisoners.
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