The Clinton Administration has unveiled its new drug strategy, which pledges to reduce both drug addiction and drug-related crimes. Unfortunately, the strategy cannot produce what it promises--even if the full $14.6-billion budget request is approved--because it falls far short in providing treatment for the nation's 5.5 million drug abusers.
The need for treatment was ignored by Newt Gingrich and the new Republican majority in the rush to fulfill their "contract with America" to keep people safe from crime. The Administration plan acknowledges the importance of treatment, but drug enforcement, interdiction and source-country programs still receive the bulk of this year's funding. In fact, the Clinton drug strategy resembles the Bush drug strategy, which from 1988 to 1992 allocated only one-third of federal drug spending to prevention, education and treatment.
Federal drug policy suffers from ignorance of the effectiveness of treatment in reducing drug addiction and drug-related crime. National studies that followed tens of thousands of addicts through different programs report that one-third of those who stay in treatment longer than three months are still off drugs a year later. The success rate jumps to two-thirds when treatment lasts a year or longer.
Treatment is the least expensive way to reduce drug use. A 1994 RAND Corp. study found that $34 million spent on treatment reduces cocaine use by as much as $246 million spent on domestic law enforcement or $360 million on interdiction. It concludes that every $1 spent on treatment is worth $7 spent on law enforcement. The RAND study also found that reducing federal enforcement spending by 25% while doubling current treatment funding would achieve the same results as current drug policies at a savings of $5.3 billion a year.
More than half of the 1.4 million people behind bars in this country have serious drug habits, yet less than 10% of these prisoners participate in intensive drug treatment. In recent years, treatment has produced good results both inside prisons and in court-supervised community programs. For example, the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison, a program started by Brooklyn Dist. Atty. Charles J. Hynes in 1990, has dramatically reduced recidivism among second-time felony drug offenders. Participants are given the option of prosecution, which could lead to lengthy sentences, or going into residential treatment for 15 months to two years. To date, 60% of the participants have completed treatment, while most of those who dropped out have been prosecuted and are now in prison. Six months after treatment, graduates have a rearrest rate of 7% in contrast to a 40% rate for similar offenders who were incarcerated without treatment.
The New York program saves money as well as helps reduce its prison overcrowding. Treating the 100 participants costs $1.8 million a year; incarcerating them without treatment would cost $3.5 million a year.
Criminologists who argue that prison pays--that incarceration costs less than the crimes an offender would commit outside--acknowledge that locking up low-level drug offenders does not protect communities since street dealers driven by their own drug habits are in seemingly infinite supply. Only intensive, structured treatment will change their behavior and break the costly cycle of crime and addiction.
While Republicans and Democrats in Washington seem addicted to the old failed ways of dealing with drug-related crimes, new political voices in the states--faced with the harsh realities of shrinking budgets--are bringing fresh perspectives to the problem. New York Gov. George Pataki recently proposed eliminating mandatory jail terms for nonviolent drug offenders and sentencing them instead to treatment or community service. Both alternatives are far cheaper: It costs $35,000 to lock up one offender for a year, compared with an average $18,000 for a year of residential care or $2,500 in an outpatient program.
Funding for treatment is the key if the Pataki approach is to succeed. Otherwise, tens of thousands of addicts will be back on the streets, much like the deinstitutionalization of mental patients in the 1970s which closed the asylums but failed to provide alternatives.
Without readily available treatment in the community, the jails will continue to be revolving doors for many who are both addicted and mentally ill--and often homeless, when they are not incarcerated.
Effective drug treatment bridges the gap between what many politicians consider irreconcilable public demands: firmer action against crime and lower public expenditures. More of the same, as in the latest Clinton Administration drug strategy, only prolongs the waste of money and lives.