[See yesterday's blog for the full story on drug abuse and prison reform.]
Almost a decade ago, the citizens of Arizona, employing initiative and referendum, demanded that state courts mandate treatment services for non-violent drug offenders, rather than sending them to prison. The state legislature, in a "tough on crime" political move, overturned citizen will once. Arizonans responded with another grassroots effort and reinstated their treatment versus incarceration plan.
The Arizona statute requires the courts to "sentence" persons convicted of non-violent drug offenses to a mandatory treatment program sanctioned by the state. The law provides that this approach may be taken even up to third time offenders in some cases.
For sure, Arizona has never been accused of being an ultra-liberal state. So, what gives?
The economics of maintaining prison systems explains much of the Arizona reasoning. Courts, shackled by mandatory sentencing requirements, have had no choice in many cases but to fill up the prison cells of state penitentiaries. The costs have skyrocketed in every state. Arizona sought relief for its state budget.
And relief it found.
After using the new system for several years, the results have been telling. Over 70% of those sent to treatment programs have not returned to prison. The majority have gone to work. The savings to the state on an annual basis: $30,000 per person.
Since the Arizona experiment, other states have developed their own programs and many more are on the drawing boards in state after state.
The prison lobby doesn't like the movement that is underway, but communities benefit greatly. Rather than continuing to be a drain on community resources, men and women who return to neighborhoods without a prison record or, worse yet, prison experience find themselves in position to make a positive contribution.
People who have been to treatment for drug abuse stand a much better chance of being employed again. They also need not lie on an employment or rent application.
Lessons learned while facing and dealing with an addiction and an addictive personality prepare a person for a better life. Lessons learned while locked up appear to take most people in an entirely different direction.
Texas needs to take a look at the Arizona model, as well as those now operating in many other states. There is money, lots of money, to be saved.
Even more important, lives don't need to be wasted, nor neighborhoods devastated.
One final idea. Public and non-profit hospital systems, especially in urban areas, continue to take a beating in their Emergency Departments, as more and more uninsured patients receive services for which they cannot pay. Possibly these health care systems could develop in-patient and out-patient services for people who need treatment rather than jail. Sending our tax dollars to hospitals for healing makes more sense than continuing to send them to prisons where the disease only gets worse.
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