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Crime: Looking at the Big Picture : Drug Treatment, Not More Police, Should Be Focus in San Diego

On Monday, the San Diego City Council will consider placing several tax and bond measures on the November ballot. One of the most important is a special tax to increase the police force by as many as 619 officers over the next five years. The cost: a staggering $42 million to $119 million over that period.

There are many legitimate reasons to beef up the police force. The length of police response times is up. The amount of time officers have to investigate crimes is down. Overall, crime is rising. San Diego has far fewer officers per 1,000 residents than five other California cities. And, with the opening of the city’s new 200-bed pretrial jail next year, there will at least be room for the additional people arrested by all those new police.

But spending tens of millions of dollars to put more police on the street won’t address the cause of a huge part of the city’s crime problem: drug use. More than 80% of the people booked into the county jails test positive for drugs, regardless of the crime for which they were arrested.

And so, as much as San Diego needs more police--and as politically popular as putting more police on the street would be--we question whether additional crime dollars would not be better spent on drug treatment.

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City officials rightly note that drug treatment is primarily the responsibility of the county government, not the city. And, at a time when the city is strapped for cash, who can blame it for a reluctance to take on another agency’s chores?

But, if city homeowners are going to be asked to spend $30 to $300 a year, and businesses up to $1,400 annually within five years, the money should be used in the most cost-effective way, on programs that have the greatest chance for long-term success. A growing body of research points to drug treatment.

A 1986 UCLA study found that an average of $11.54 would be saved in property crimes, social services, medical costs and lost productivity for every $1 spent on drug treatment. Treating a cocaine addict saves $915 in court costs, jail expenditures and reduced property theft. After treatment, drug users are apt to place a significantly smaller burden on the criminal justice system, reducing costs for victims, cops, courts and prisons, another study showed.

County officials estimate that it would cost about $11 million more annually to meet minimal county drug-treatment needs--about double the amount spent now.

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Devoting money to drug treatment rather than police might reduce public health expenditures such as those for neonatal care for crack babies.

There are about 340 people on waiting lists--some of them six months long--for county drug-treatment programs. The criminal justice system is overflowing with the results of drug abuse.

It’s time for the San Diego City Council to start looking at the bigger picture.


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