Focus on Drug Treatment Expands; Recidivism Contracts

Prison reform advocates have long promoted the concept that treatment, rather than incarceration, would be a more effective and less costly alternative sentence for thousands of substance abusers comprising the majority of inmates now crowding the jails and prisons. Now a sitting judge of Harris County’s 177th Criminal District Court (TX) has added his voice to that concept. He’s quoted in Law.com as saying “I know 85 percent of the prison population is there because they have a substance abuse problem that can be addressed in another way other than locking them up, which does absolutely, positively no good.” Judge Kevin D. Fine continues that helping addicts get clean, sober and out of the court system, was “my whole reason for wanting to run (for office).”

And just a few days ago, on October 14, major provisions of the Rockerfeller Drug Law Reforms went into effect, permitting nearly 1500 New York inmates to petition for resentencing. According to a Weed.mx article, “it is the first time in 36 years that New York State drug laws place the power of sentencing decisions in the hands of judges, who can now take into account the totality of the circumstances when someone is convicted of a drug offense to fashion the appropriate sentence . . . whether it be treatment or other alternatives to incarceration programs, probation or parole . . . and make a prison sentence the last resort.”

Another development is a newly released report about California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which proclaims that current substance abuse treatment efforts can cut one-year recidivism nearly in half for offenders completing both an in-prison program followed by community aftercare treatment. “Effective treatment for alcohol and drug addiction is crucial for successful reintegration into the community when inmates are released,” said Matthew Cate, CDCR Secretary. “Our emphasis on encouraging inmates who complete substance abuse programs in prison to continue in community aftercare treatment has proven to be successful,” he said.

The 2009 Annual Report of California’s Office of Substance Abuse Treatment Services includes return-to-custody data on offenders who paroled in Fiscal Year 2005-06 for a one-year and a two-year period. The return to custody rate after one year for offenders completing both in-prison and community-based treatment in FY 2005-06 was 21.9 percent compared to 39.9 percent for all offenders. The recidivism rate after two years for offenders completing both in-prison and community-based treatment in FY 2005-06 was 35.3 percent compared to 54.2 percent for all offenders.

As of June 2008, more than half (54.6 percent) of offenders who completed in-prison programs continued on to aftercare. The average daily population of parolees receiving community treatment has more than doubled – from more than 2,600 at the end of June 2007 to over 5,800 in July 2009.

It’s not just in Texas and California where substance-abuse efforts are underway. Every two years, drug policy reformers from across the United States and around the world gather together at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference to listen, learn, network and strategize. This year the event will be held in Albuquerque on November 12-14, 2009. Clearly, one of the potential benefits of meaningful strategic drug policies applied in a manner to impact all justice systems will have long-term ramifications affecting our nation’s prison recidivism issues down the road. – ED.


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