NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Treatment Replacing Incarceration As Anti-Drug Policy

June 10, 1999

Twelve years ago, public alarm over crack, a form of cocaine, led the nation to opt for stiff prison sentences in lieu of treatment as the preferred policy. With prisons now jammed full of nonviolent drug offenders, sentiment is swinging back to treatment for drug offenders.

  • At least 40 states now give judges and prosecutors discretion to steer offenders toward treatment instead of incarceration -- with Arizona taking the boldest lead.
  • The number of Americans locked up for drug offenses has surged from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 today.
  • Although some studies have found that a majority of crack addicts fail to respond to treatment, it clearly works for many.
  • Confronted by national surveys that show that 84 percent of people who have tried cocaine did not become addicted, experts who once viewed crack as the worst drug of all have changed their minds.

While the basic laws on mandatory sentences have not changed, prosecutors are being given greater latitude to send offenders to treatment instead of filing charges that could lead to jail time. Crack is the only drug that carries a mandatory prison term for possession.

According to a study from Columbia University, treatment instead of prison saves about $20,000 a year per offender.

Many states have instituted drug courts where treatment is an option. The courts have grown from a handful at the start of the decade to nearly 600 nationwide. According to the General Accounting Office, 70 percent of those sent to treatment by drug courts successfully complete treatment. People who are sent to prison instead of treatment are four times as likely to commit another drug crime within five years of release.

Source: Timothy Egan, "In States' Anti-Drug Fight, A Renewal for Treatment," New York Times, June 10, 1999.


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