Some issues transcend political divisions. How best to prevent drug addiction before it starts and provide treatment to those who want to turn their lives around is one of those issues. Over the last few decades, we’ve learned a lot about what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to preventing and treating drug abuse. And while we’ve made some significant strides in our fight against addiction, we can do even better.
One thing we have learned is that the problem of addiction is intimately tied to the problem of high recidivism rates in our criminal justice system where many end up back in prison soon after being released. In fact, as many as 85 percent of people who go through the criminal justice system struggle with drugs and alcohol , and over half meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction. That adds to both prison populations and rates of recidivism. Until we help them break their addiction, reforming their lives and becoming productive members of society will be almost impossible. That means more fathers and mothers who are not in their kids’ lives, more broken families, and because families are the heart of any community, more broken communities as well.
Because addiction and recidivism are so intimately connected, we should address these problems together. In an effort to do just that, this week we are bringing together community leaders, treatment professionals and experts in criminal justice for an in-depth forum on drug addiction and recidivism.
Many of the groups attending the forum already shared their expertise and experience with us as we crafted legislation to reform the federal prison system — the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. Our bill applies policies that have worked to reduce recidivism in many states to the federal prison system. We worked to combine our bill with other federal prison reforms proposed by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, and our package was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. The time is right for Congress to enact these policies for federal inmates.
Reforming the federal prison system will save American taxpayers money, potentially resulting in billions in savings. But the greatest benefits go beyond dollars and cents. The reforms we propose will change the lives of individuals who are given a second chance, making our communities safer and more secure while allowing people to reach their full potential and become productive members of society.
Spending on federal prisons is consuming an ever-growing share of our budget. The federal Bureau of Prisons spends nearly $7 billion each year, and each inmate in federal prison costs taxpayers approximately $29,000 annually.
With funding from the Justice Department through programs like the Second Chance Act, state leaders have worked in a bipartisan way to pass reforms that reduced spending while better protecting the public. These state reforms have saved taxpayers billions, while at the same time increasing public safety and changing lives.
But far more importantly, they did so without jeopardizing public safety. After the Rhode Island legislature enacted a variety of changes to its criminal justice system in 2008, the state’s prison population declined by 9 percent. But defying the conventional wisdom, the state’s crime rate decreased by 7 percent over the same period. In 2012, Rhode Island had fewer violent crimes, fewer property crimes, and fewer total crimes than in 2008. Ohio enacted its reforms only two years ago, but the results are already encouraging. In 2012, the state experienced 20,000 fewer crimes than in the previous year. The same story has been repeated across the country.
One of the key reforms states have pursued has focused on the link between substance abuse and crime. As a result, they expanded treatment programs and support for individuals in recovery, while offering alternatives to incarceration for some offenders. By spending just a little bit more on drug treatment, they have saved millions on the cost of incarceration, while helping inmates turn their lives around.
The lesson of these state successes is that by leveraging our criminal justice resources, we can help to stop the cycle of abuse that has turned many of our prison gates into revolving doors. That is a goal that deserves all of our support.
Sen. Rob Portman is a Republican from Ohio. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat from Rhode Island.