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Study: Substance abuse treatment cheaper than jailing Black men

By Freddie Allen NNPA Washington Correspondent | Last updated: Jan 24, 2013 - 5:36:34 PM

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WASHINGTON (NNPA) - A recent study reports that treating substance abusers, especially Blacks, could save the nation billions of dollars at a time when all eyes are glued to debates over how to solve the country’s national debt.

The study by researchers at Meharry Medical College School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. linked the prevalence of substance abuse disorders to the high rates of incarceration among Black males. Published in the November 2012 edition of “Frontiers in Psychiatry,” the study also suggested that spending more money on community-based treatment programs and improving mental health care in the Black community could have an impact on substance abuse and crime among young Black males.

Substance use disorders (SUDs) were associated with health problems, economic hardships, failed relationships, domestic violence and crime. If you struggled with drugs and lived in a major metropolitan area you were also more likely to spend time behind bars.

According to the Meharry study, roughly 80 percent of adults in U.S. prisons used or abused alcohol or other drugs.

Although Blacks abstained from drugs and alcohol at higher rates than the national average, Blacks are disproportionately represented in drug arrests and prison sentences nationwide. Driven by draconian drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing, the incarceration rates for Blacks exploded by 500 percent between 1986 and 2004. In 2009, Black males were 6.7 times more likely to spend time in jail than their White counterparts.

“This high rate of incarceration has resulted in more African American males involved with the criminal justice system than with educational services,” the report stated.

When arrest records and visits to jail become more common than diplomas and college tours, educational values shift.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life for many young, Black men, said William Richie, assistant psychiatry professor at Meharry Medical College and lead author of the study.

“Finishing school for African American males is often some sort of incarceration, where they learn the true nature of the world,” said Mr. Richie. “You get a couple of arrests under your belt, a couple of times that you’ve been charged, and suddenly, it’s not a foreign concept for an African American male.”

It’s not a foreign concept for the rest of American taxpayers, either, who largely foot the bill for this costly education.

The Vera Institute of Justice, an independent research organization, found that states spend in excess of $40 billion annually to house, feed and secure criminals. States spend more than $300 million on health care for prisoners alone. That number is dwarfed by the $3 billion it costs to fund the health care and pensions for retired corrections employees.

“It’s cheaper to give (substance abusers) treatment and to try to help them return to a productive state than it is to lock them up,” said Tracye Wilson employment coordinator for Our Place DC, a nonprofit group that helps formerly incarcerated women return to their families and neighborhoods. “They’re not doing anything accept for sucking the economy dry when they’re locked up. You have to feed them, you have to pay the guards to guard them.”

A 2008 report by the Justice Policy Institute, a group that advocates for justice reform, showed that it’s more cost-effective to provide treatment for substance abusers through community based-programs than it is to care for them while they are incarcerated.

The report revealed that drug treatment program costs range from $1,800 to $6,800 per participant. Yet, prisons spend more than $24,000 a year incarcerating criminals and another $24 per day to treat those with SUDs.

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America’s New Slavery: Black Men in Prison (FCN, 03-20-2008)