NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Prison Not Most Cost-Effective Way to Treat Low-Risk Substance Abuse Offenders

May 11, 2011

Substance abuse takes a significant toll on Texas families and taxpayers.  Given that the state has increasingly limited resources, it is an opportune time to evaluate those strategies that can produce the greatest reductions in substance abuse and related criminal activity with every dollar spent, says Marc Levin, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice.         

  • In 2009, 133,191 arrests were made in Texas for drug possession and 16,598 for selling or manufacturing illegal drugs.         
  • There are 16,188 inmates in Texas state lockups due to a drug possession conviction, which translates into a biennial cost to Texas taxpayers of $600.2 million.

While prisons are appropriately utilized to protect the public from drug kingpins and those whose illegal drug use is part of a pattern of criminal or gang activity indicating a threat to the community, the evidence indicates that for those low-level drug possession offenders who are not a danger to public safety, other approaches are often more cost-effective.        

  • A Maryland study, for example, found that low-risk substance abuse offenders that were directed into an evidence-based probation and treatment program were 22 percent less likely to recidivate within a year after the program than comparable offenders sent to prison.        
  • The national Drug Abuse Treatment Outcome Survey of 10,000 treatment participants found that residential treatment reduces criminal behavior, with a 50 percent reduction in drug use and a 61 percent reduction in crime; outpatient treatment resulted in a 50 percent reduction in drug use and a 37 percent reduction in crime.

Drug court programs -- special courts assigned to dispose of cases involving substance abuse offenders through comprehensive programs -- have shown significant savings potential.  Consider, a drug court program costs between $2,500 and $4,000.  By comparison, the annual cost per Texas inmate is more than $18,500.

Source: Marc Levin, "Breaking Addiction without Breaking the Bank: Cost-Effective Strategies for Texas Lawmakers to Reduce Substance Abuse," Texas Public Policy Foundation, April 2011.

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