Reefer Madness: Treatment Works

Bill would divert low-level drug offenders from prison and save a bundle of money

Sen. Rodney Ellis
Sen. Rodney Ellis (Photo by John Anderson)

Keeping people in prison is expensive. It costs the state of Texas more than $14,000 (at the low end) to house an inmate in a state jail facility for a year and, on average, more than $16,000 per year to house an inmate in a Texas prison. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's 2007 annual review, it costs more than $2 billion per year to incarcerate felons – 79.4% of the agency's budget. The cost might be understandable if it were being spent to house violent offenders who pose a real risk to society. But the fact is that a large chunk of that money is actually being spent to house low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Keeping those folks out of state jails and prisons could save the state a lot of money – according to the Legislative Budget Board, it could save the state as much as $500 million over just five years.

That's the goal of Senate Bill 1118, the so-called Treatment Works bill, filed by Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston; John Carona, R-Dallas; and Glenn Hegar, R-Katy (with co-sponsors Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, and John Whitmire, D-Houston), which would divert from prison and state jail offenders charged with third-degree felony or misdemeanor drug possession. These defendants instead would be put into community supervision and, importantly, drug treatment – at an average cost of just $3,241 per person. The drug treatment costs would be paid by the individual, if possible, meaning the state would have to provide drug-treatment funding for roughly 60% of offenders eligible for the diversion. But that cost pales in comparison to the costs associated with keeping low-level drug offenders in jail: As of Aug. 31, 2008, there were more than 19,000 inmates in Texas facilities for drug possession, which costs, on average, more than $260 million a year. Continuing to spend that kind of money, especially in a down economy, just to lock up nonviolent drug offenders makes no sense, says Ellis. And the bill contains extra motivation for offenders to stay out of jail. If successful in treatment, a defendant can ultimately ask a judge for nondisclosure of the original charge, which helps individuals land and keep employment, access funding for education, and stay clean. "My motivation is to create a smarter, more effective criminal justice system in Texas, and this bill does just that," he said. "It saves Texas money while still keeping Texans safe."

This is the second time Ellis has filed such legislation. In 2007, he joined with Carona and Deuell to offer the same bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, in the House. The bill passed easily out of House and Senate committees but later languished on the House floor. Why it died isn't entirely clear – with strong bipartisan support, Capitol watchers thought the bill was a clear choice for fiscal responsibility. But it proved politically challenging: Madden's support for the measure became an issue during his re-election campaign, and, says Marc Levin, with the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice, it nearly cost him his seat. Jon Cole, Madden's 23-year-old primary challenger, did a stint with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under former drug czar John Walters while he was a student at Georgetown University. During the campaign, Cole tossed a soft-on-crime barb at Madden, and the label gained traction. Cole called for a return to "Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs" (while, ironically, also calling on lawmakers to "rein in spending"), and he got backing from eight current and former elected district attorneys, including Williamson Co. D.A. John "Tough Guy" Brad­ley. Madden hung on to his seat, but the primary vote was close, with Madden pulling 51.8% of the vote. (Notably, Madden has not yet signed on to this session's version of the bill.)

For sure, the only public opposition to the measure in 2007 was from prosecutors – and only a single voice, an assistant district attorney with the Harris Co. prosecutor's office, spoke out against the measure at a committee hearing, complaining that the drug quantities covered by the bill were excessive for a simple user. In short, there are certainly politics involved in such reforms, but Levin says TPPF supports the measure because it's smart policy. "It's a challenge getting support from Republicans in the House, but I'm working on it," he said. "It's good policy, and that's what we're focusing on. The politics will take care of itself."

Indeed, it's not as though this kind of measure is untried, and state lawmakers are increasingly turning to adopting prison-diversion programs. Notably, in 1996, Arizona voters passed the Drug Medicalization, Preven­tion and Control Act, which did much the same thing that SB 1118 now seeks to do. In Arizona, Levin notes, the program boasts a 77% success rate in keeping folks from becoming repeat offenders. And California, where voters passed a similar measure in 2001, has already seen more than $1 billion in savings. In fact, between 2004 and 2006, 22 states enacted legislative reforms to sentencing policies, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, including several that passed diversion programs similar to the Texas proposal.

Any opposition, of course, will likely come in the form of tough-on-crime posturing that took place last session. But the reality is that we can't incarcerate our way out of crime – and certainly this is not a solution for the majority of drug offenders. The fact that drug addiction is a disease is hardly controversial. While some people see addiction as a "failure of will," former National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Alan Leshner argued addiction "should be understood as a chronic recurring illness." According to the institute, $1 spent on treatment actually saves $4 to $7 in costs related to addiction. Given the money involved and the lives in the balance, getting people out of jail and into treatment makes perfect sense, says Ellis. "Any reform of this type will be an uphill climb in Texas, but I feel very good about its chance for passage," Ellis said. "We have strong bipartisan support, and we are starting to see a shift from the 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' mentality. ... I think that holds true in both parties – and though we haven't spoken directly about it – I believe if we get this bill to [Gov. Rick] Perry's desk, it will become law."

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drug treatment, Senate Bill 1118, Rodney Ellis, Jerry Madden, 81st Legislature

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