Sending offenders to rehab instead of prison could have numerous benefits, some research suggests. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation may provide some relief for the ongoing opioid crisis, prison overpopulation, and rising government debt.
Drug rehab and addiction treatment for offenders saves money for communities and individuals.
An estimated 50 percent of the U.S. prison population has a drug addiction issue, but only about 10 percent actually get the necessary help. Sending many of these offenders to rehab rather than jail or prison could help save money in the following ways:
Individuals in addiction recovery are less likely to be arrested again, which reduces costs related to arrest and incarceration
Fewer crimes committed also would reduce court costs and lawyer fees
Initial drug rehab and addiction treatment is less costly than prison
Addiction treatment and recovery improve health overall, which then reduces healthcare costs in both the short- and long-term
Addiction treatment and recovery would reduce costs associated with lost work productivity, either from incarceration or drug-related injury and illness
Recovery would save resources spent on caretaking for children of offenders or addicts
Prisons are not equipped for rehabilitation.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 15 percent to 20 percent of the United States’ 2 million prisoners have a mental illness. Unlike clinics and hospitals, however, the prison system was not built to address serious mental-health needs.
Psychologists and, to a lesser extent, psychiatrists do provide mental health care to prison inmates, and may provide helpful rehabilitative services. Such programs, however, are difficult for prison-based therapists to implement on top of their already heavy caseloads. There are also not enough mental-health professionals to address every need in U.S. prisons.
Rehab programs for inmates are also difficult to create and implement because of philosophical and priority differences. While psychology is focused on treating and rehabilitating patients, the current criminal justice system is focused on punishing offenders.
What does the research on addiction treatment show?
Research dating back to the 1970s has shown that the prison environment itself has a major effect on behavior and mental health. The Stanford Prison Experiment, published in 1973, demonstrated that a prison-like environment can bring out depressive or sadistic behavior in even psychologically healthy individuals. This alone suggests the benefits of rehabilitation over incarceration, especially for less serious offenses.
A more recent study suggests that sending just 10 percent of eligible offenders to community-based treatment programs instead of prison could save $4.8 billion. If 40 percent of eligible offenders were sent to the programs over prison, it would save $12.9 billion.
Researchers based their findings on a lifetime simulation model of a cohort of 1.14 million state prisoners. The model accounted for chronic substance abuse, estimated the lifetime benefits of treatment, and calculated costs related to policing, trial, and incarceration. The study was published in “Crime & Delinquency” in 2012.
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