NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Treatment of Drug Offenders is Cheaper than Incarceration

May 9, 2003

Although the Texas corrections budget has topped $2.5 billion annually, the good news is that some state legislators are looking creatively at ways to save money and improve public safety. Texas policy-makers are proposing to divert low-level, nonviolent offenders from costly imprisonment into treatment and supervision.

Viewed from both an economic and a public safety standpoint, the choice between prison and substance abuse treatment for many nonviolent offenders whose crimes are drug-related should be easy. An increasing body of research completed since the start of the "war on drugs" indicates that a rational cost-benefit calculation favors treatment hands down:

  • A landmark Rand Corp. study found that treatment is three times as effective as mandatory minimum prison sentences.
  • A study by the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs found that for every tax dollar invested in treatment, taxpayers saved seven dollars in future crime- and health-related costs.
  • A national evaluation of individuals in publicly funded treatment programs found that drug use dropped by 41 percent in the year after treatment -- while the proportion of individuals selling drugs dropped 78 percent and the proportion arrested on any charge dropped 64 percent.
  • The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that participants who completed an alternative drug treatment program were 33 percent less likely to be arrested, 45 percent less likely to be convicted again and 87 percent less likely to return to prison than the comparable group sent to prison.

Faced with an unprecedented fiscal crisis and a prison system that incarcerates 72,000 nonviolent offenders at a cost of more than $20,000 per inmate per year, observers say Texas legislators are taking a best-practices, nonpartisan approach to returning some balance to Texas' criminal justice system.

Source: Michelle Deitch, "Treating drug offenders saves dollars," Dallas Morning News, May 4, 2003.


Browse more articles on Government Issues