10 Facts on How Addictions Treatment vs. Incarceration Cuts Costs for Taxpayers

By Laurel Sindewald

If we’re looking for ways to save national and corporate dollars, then it’s high time we took a look at our criminal justice system.

Dubbed “the incarceration nation,” America has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. One out of every 60 adults today is under probation supervision, and at the end of 2012 there were 2.3 million incarcerated adults. For the root of this problem, we need look no further than our “war on drugs.”

Costs of addiction treatment vs. incarcerationSubstance abuse is the number one cause of incarceration in the U.S., whether as the direct cause of arrest or by influencing people to commit other crimes. In 2012, 48% of federal inmates were convicted of drug crimes. More than 80% of state and local prisoners have used drugs and 55% used them in the month prior to their arrest.

We used to think repeated use of drugs was a behavioral choice, and so the threat of prison was hoped to be enough to keep people from using illegal drugs. But there is a reason recidivism is so high: addiction is a disease of the reward centers of the brain. It doesn’t pay to punish addicts for their choices. Once a person is addicted, he or she will be drawn back to the drug regardless of the consequences. Knowing this, we can prescribe addictions treatment as a solution benefiting all.

Let’s look at some figures comparing the costs of treatment to the costs associated with continued drug abuse and criminal activity.

  1. The governor of Vermont announced recently that “incarcerating a person for a week costs the state $1,120, while a week of treatment at a state-financed center costs $123.” Source
  2. The National Institute on Drug Abuse informs us that federally, “the average cost for 1 full year of methadone maintenance treatment is approximately $4,700 per patient, whereas 1 full year of imprisonment costs approximately $24,000 per person.” Source
  3. NIDA also estimates that, “every dollar invested in addiction treatment programs yields a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs, and theft.” Source
  4. Drug addiction costs the U.S. about 600 billion annually. When healthcare savings from lessened drug use are included, savings from treatment exceeds costs 12 to 1. Source
  5. One meta-study from 2013 reports that the Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison program (DTAP), between its beginnings in 1990 and an evaluation in 2012, admitted 3,022 participants. 1,377 successfully completed the program. A 6-year evaluation found economic benefits of $88,554 per DTAP participant with a 2.17 cost-benefit ratio. Source
  6. In California, New York, and Washington, every $100,000 spent on treatment avoids $487 in health care costs and $700,000 in crime costs. Source
  7. In California, treated patients had 39% fewer ER visits, 35% fewer hospital stays, and 26% lower medical costs compared to a control group. Source
  8. In Washington State, drug offenders who were treated had lower medical costs than those who were not treated ($311/month), lower state hospital expenses ($48/month), and lower community psychiatric hospital costs ($16/month). Those treated for addiction were also 16% less likely to be arrested and 34% less likely to receive a felony conviction. Source
  9. A 2013 meta-study examining data from Connecticut, New York, Oklahoma, and Washington found that patients involved in outpatient treatment had lower risk for arrest following treatment. This decrease in risk ranged from 17 to 27% across states. Source
  10. Sixty-eight percent of drug offenders are arrested within three years of release from prison. Source

When prisoners cooperate, treatment programs can help heal disease where judgment and prison will make the problem worse. Perhaps we need to see drug addiction as a problem of public health and national stability, not a problem of justice.

Also by Laurel Sindewald:

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