Overcrowded prisons lead to vicious cycle with war on drugs
The so-called war on drugs has failed, leaving the taxpayer to pick up the tab, says a panel of local experts.
That panel spent the better part of two hours Monday night inside the Framingham Public Library's Costin Room articulating the systematic problems of the state's approach to criminals who face drug-related charges.
Many statistics were referenced. Almost all the numbers reflected a burgeoning prison population in the state, with no money to provide for additional inmates.
Some prisoners have substance abuse or mental illness problems that could be better treated outside of prison, which could also save the state money.
Mandatory minimum sentences that hamstring options of the courts and cause more nonviolent criminals to be jailed are not the answer, said attorney David White.
Allowing for more flexibility in sentencing could yield savings, said Michael Botticelli, who is the state's Department of Public Health's substance abuse services director.
Botticelli, a reformed addict and alcoholic, says it costs $48,000 to house someone in jail for a year versus $4,000 to $5,000 to treat someone for a drug problem.
More than 25,000 people are jailed in Massachusetts prison and county facilities.
The state's prison population rose by more than 300 percent between 1980 and 2008, according to a report of the Drug Policy Task Force of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
The main cause of the spike? Drug arrests, according to that report.
"We have, for some reason, an addiction to incarceration," said attorney White.
In fiscal 2009, according to the report, the budget for corrections was greater than the state's higher education budget.
And it could get worse.
Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaolo said his budget is $8.5 million less than last year.
Even given the fiscal crunch, DiPaolo hoped the state would not retrogress and gouge treatment programs that help addicts and criminals recover.
"We don't want to head back to 1994 ... and say 'Just stick them in there' ... and hope through some miracle they come out all right," said Dipaolo.
Drugs are often tied to other crimes: 80 percent of domestic violence cases have some connection to drugs, said Judge Robert Ziemian.
From a recidivism point of view, treatment is essential, says Ziemian.
He says on average an untreated heroin addict commits about 300 crimes a year.
Drug courts, said Ziemian, work.
Framingham has had a drug court for 10 years, said Judge Paul Healy.
The court oftentimes requires offenders to participate in a three-phased, 48-week recovery.
The recidivism rate is 30 percent, about half of what the typical rate for such offenders outside the court would be.
In order for any sort of substantive reform to happen, however, the state's Legislature would have to fight through the "soft on crime," political fallout, said White.
"We have to have the political courage to save money," said White, who favors eliminating mandatory minimum sentences.
On Beacon Hill, there are several proposals expected to be discussed in upcoming weeks that would allow for more flexibility with electronic monitoring and parole eligibility.
Dan McDonald can be reached at 508-626-4416 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.