Impact: Behavioral Health Series

Issue #7; March 7, 2005

Addiction Costs More Than Lives

Most of us are aware of the issue described as “prison overcrowding.”  Few people want to pay more taxes to build more prisons. What many may not know, however, is that the huge increase in the number of people incarcerated in this country over the previous decade is largely due to drug-related arrests. Between 1980 and 1996 the total number of inmates in the United States tripled, from 500,000 to 1.7 million. During this same period, the number incarcerated for drug-related crimes increased 11-fold, suggesting that 1 million of the 1.2 million increase in person’s incarcerated was related to the buying, selling, or using drugs.   

Overall, we know that alcohol and other drugs are implicated in 80% of incarcerations of both men and women. In addition to the pressures this places on our courts and prisons, this increase puts us in the unenviable position of being the country with the most people incarcerated per capita in the world.  And this has a cost. In 1996, for example, $38 billion was spent on prisons. Of this $38 billion, $30 billion was for individuals involved in alcohol and other drug-related crimes.   

The cost of so many people being incarcerated throughout this nation as a result of alcohol and drug addiction are not restricted to taxpayers. For instance, the 1.4 million people currently incarcerated for their drug-related crimes are the parents of 2.4 million children. Those children will spend much of their crucial developmental years without one of their parents present.  

What can be done? Let’s be clear. Persons on probation or in jails and prisons for crimes committed when they were under the influence of drugs are not there because they missed Sunday school. They committed a criminal act for which our society has mandated consequences. However, we do need to decide upon and stick with an informed investment strategy. Do we risk having to build more prisons or do we steadily invest more in effective, carefully measured treatment and recovery-oriented strategies for offenders, with proper attention to public safety? Each $1 invested in treatment yields a return of $7 in increased productivity, tax revenue and cost offsets.   

Connecticut has much to be proud of in its focus on these issues. Our prison census has decreased over the last few years to an extent that leads the nation. And this even after returning all of our offenders who were housed in Virginia prisons. Approaches that provide treatment as an alternative to prison have been developed and implemented. Also, treatment programs continue to be offered within prisons and are increasingly tied to “evidence-based practices,” i.e., those known to be effective.  The Departments of Correction, Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Judicial Branch are working closely together in resource development, service delivery and other strategies so that a wider band of diversion, probation, in prison, and post prison release services are in place.  

Studies show that treatment for offenders reduces criminal recidivism.  We need to support public policies that invest in treatment and recovery for offenders. This makes perfect sense from a fiscal, social policy and healthcare perspective. 

Comments are welcome at or .

Treatment for offenders saves taxpayer’s dollars, reduces crime, and saves lives.

/ Impact Index 2005 /