Minnesota should consider

New York state Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye ordered New York courts last week to begin phasing in a program that will allow nonviolent drug addicts an opportunity to receive treatment rather than jail time. Judge Kaye expects the initiative to divert 10,000 people from state prisons, which currently house 95,000 inmates. Although other states have implemented similar programs, none have been as encompassing as New York’s will be, making it an example for other states, like Minnesota.
In 1999, Arizona designed a similar program to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison to treatment programs and reported remarkable early success. More than three-quarters of the offenders in treatment tested negative for drugs after completing the program. Although Arizona has thus far accumulated no data regarding the relapse rate of treated offenders, statistics from other programs show encouraging results. Research cited by New York lawmakers reports a 70 percent success rate from court-ordered treatment programs. Surprisingly, in Arizona, sending offenders to rehabilitation costs half as much as sending them to prison, which saves taxpayers there $2.6 million.
Currently, housing one inmate costs Minnesota more than $31,000 a year, or $85.25 every day. The state prison population has risen a dramatic 182 percent over the last two decades. Fifteen percent of current inmates are drug offenders. Taxpayers absorb the burgeoning costs of imprisoning nonviolent drug users, who are often repeat offenders. If implementing a drug treatment program costs taxpayers significantly less in Arizona and New York, then Minnesota — a state characterized by high taxes — should definitely consider the option.
In Minnesota and in other states, a drug war fueled by trendsetting drugs like Ecstasy has accompanied a spike in the number of drug offenders in prisons. Long-term statistics show a clear rise in the state prison population. Furthermore, recent numbers indicate that drug offenders are the fastest growing population among prison inmates in the last few years. Minnesota, however, is not in the same dire situation as New York, which needs to implement an effective drug rehabilitation program for drug offenders to keep prison capacity at a reasonable level. In 1995, New York prisons were operating 30 percent over the intended capacity.
As an alternative to prison, drug rehabilitation programs address the concerns of critics of the Rockefeller-era drug laws, which are frequently criticized for being unjust. Under the Rockefeller laws, small-time drug offenders can receive minimum sentences longer than the terms for rapists and murderers for peddling a few ounces of cocaine. Sometimes, a “zero-tolerance” policy blinds lawmakers from administering justice with compassion. Frequently, the laws’ most outspoken critics are the judges themselves, who are often required to enforce the minimum sentences against their better judgment.
The benefits of effective drug treatment rival those of prison time, which are too often an excuse to ignore a problem without solving it. Furthermore, the preliminary results of rehabilitation have been promising. Drug treatment costs surprisingly less than prison — lifting the burden on taxpayers — and decreases the number of repeat offenders.