One way to cut prison costs

"Drug courts" could be an alternative to mandatory minimum sentences. State general-fund spending on corrections has risen 127 percent in two decades, according to a recent report.

The expanding number of adults in prisons and jails in the US is nearing 2.5 million – more than 1 in 100 adults – the world's highest incarceration rate. As federal and state lawmakers try to downsize budgets, they should reconsider some of the tough-on-crime laws that have helped swell the prison population.

That's what the US Sentencing Commission is doing. It's reviewing ways to ease federal mandatory minimum sentences passed by Congress in the mid-1980s. The minimums for first-time offenders apply mostly to drug crimes. The commission is considering recommendations that, if approved by lawmakers, could have nonviolent drug users opt for treatment instead of time behind bars.

States, which have mandatory minimum laws of their own, would do well to watch closely, because prisons account for a large part of their budgets. In 20 years, state general-fund spending on corrections has risen 127 percent, adjusted for inflation, according to a recent study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States. Nationwide, the annual cost of incarceration is an average $24,000 per inmate.

The Sentencing Commission is considering drug courts and treatment as a far less expensive alternative – between $1,500 and $11,000 per offender.

Drug courts are increasingly popular, though they handle only a fraction of the 1.5 million drug offenders who are arrested and charged with a crime each year. Since the first drug court opened in Miami in 1989, they've spread to every state and now total about about 2,100.

In drug court, offenders can either choose imprisonment or undergo treatment supervised by a judge. Depending on the court, programs last from about nine to 18 months or longer, and include random testing for drug use, group therapy, and attendance at mandatory sobriety meetings. Participants find these programs can be much more challenging than prison, but the payoff can also be a life changed for the better.

Drug courts have their own challenges – and these need to be addressed if the nation is to use them more. They do not all apply the same standards of rigor or have judges who are skilled at overseeing a rehab regimen. This is one reason why costs vary – as do recidivism rates.

The Sentencing Commission is looking at drug courts in the hope that they will lower the recidivism rate of 67 percent for addicted offenders. Indeed, studies show drug courts improve that rate by 10 to 20 percent – again, depending on the quality of the program.

In Texas, even minor drug offenders were required to serve a minimum of two years. Now Texas drug courts are open to offenders with no felony records or histories of violence, and those courts have seen recidivism drop by 68 percent.

The majority of Americans oppose minimum mandatory sentencing for nonviolent crimes, according to a recent poll by Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The group's research shows that over 20 years, minimum sentences have not discouraged drug use or trafficking, but they have added to incarceration costs.

The Sentencing Commission is right to consider drug courts as a logical alternative.

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