Instead of throwing drug addicts in jail, the state should invest more money in substance abuse treatment, says a report issued Thursday by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which adds that the move could provide millions of dollars in savings and improve public safety.The report (pdf) included these telling data:
“You cannot cure addiction by locking it up,” said Ana Yáñez Correa, executive director of the coalition. “It doesn’t cure it; it makes it worse.”
In Texas, arrests for drug possession have increased 32 percent in the last decade, and about 90 percent of all drug-related arrests are for possession — not dealing, according to the report. In 2011, the nearly 15,000 inmates in jails and prisons on drug possession offenses statewide cost taxpayers more than $725,000 daily. The coalition argues that providing more state resources for treatment would be less costly and would prevent crimes associated with drug use.
Since 2007, lawmakers have directed money that would have been invested in building new facilities for a growing inmate population to diversion, probation and treatment programs. As a result, the prison population has fallen so much that in 2011 lawmakers for the first time closed a Texas prison, the Central Unit in Sugar Land. And this year, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has said lawmakers should consider shuttering two additional units.
But in the face of a $27 billion budget shortfall in 2011, lawmakers curtailed the growth of some of the diversion and treatment programs that had helped slow the incarceration rate in Texas. Without more investment in those kinds of programs, Texas prisons and jails could again exceed their capacity by 2014, according to the report.
- 90% of drug-related arrests in Texas are for possession – not for delivery or distribution.
- In 2010, more than 125,000 individuals in Texas were arrested for possession, more than 10% of the total arrests made for any crime.
- 30% of incoming TDCJ inmates were sentenced for drug offenses in 2011, 75% of which were for possession.
- More than 27,000 individuals in prison in 2011 were there because of a drug offense, 16,000 of which were for possession.
We'll soon discover whether the 83rd Texas Legislature will accept the group's challenge to spend a little more on treatment and diversion programs to avoid much greater spending on prisons down the line. The investments in such programs since 2007 worked better than anyone - even advocates - could have expected, with none of the crime-inducing downsides predicted by law enforcement interests. It's time to double down on that strategy.
That said, while Grits supports expanded diversion programming, to me the report avoids the elephant in the room, which is that penalty categories for drug crimes are too severe. An arrest for the tiniest amount of marijuana requires counties to pay for indigent defendants' lawyers, while an arrest for any amount of cocaine, meth or heroin, for example, brings an automatic felony charge. Grits has argued that ratcheting down these categories by one notch would bring dramatic relief both to the counties' and TDCJ's bottom line. Do I think the Lege is prepared to go that route? Likely not. But combined with expanded treatment resources, such a move would relieve tremendous pressure not just from prison costs but court caseloads and local indigent defense expenditures. Whether this session, the next, or one thereafter, it's something the Legislature will eventually need to confront if they really want to limit historically rampant corrections spending growth.