Friday, August 31, 2007

Treat addicted criminals, keep streets safer:

It's no secret that Florida's economy has taken it on the chin with regard to the distressed housing market. The downturn in such a key economic sector of our state has now compelled Gov. Charlie Crist to ask Florida lawmakers to return once again to Tallahassee to reduce the state's spending plan. But legislators will be faced with trimming a budget already pruned pretty tightly. It's not just fat that will be hitting the butcher's floor this time around. Budget reductions will affect programs and policies of great significance in the sunshine state.

Legislators must wield their authority to reduce expenses wisely. Elimination or reduction of seemingly nonessential programs has often produced grave unintended consequences -- the result has been penny-wise, pound-foolish spending plans that just defer greater expenses until some later date.

Drug-addiction treatment services provided by Florida's state agencies have always been vulnerable to cuts in times like these. Under normal circumstances, the common sense and humanity of these programs isn't questioned. But when times are bad, there is a limited constituency to speak on behalf of some Florida's most vulnerable people.

Drug addiction is a problem that, when left untreated, exacts a social, medical, legal and economic toll on our state so enormous it's difficult to calculate. But effective addiction treatment has been proven over and over to improve the quality of life in our state, reduce expenses related to substance abuse and protect the safety of the public.

A shining example of how these programs serve Florida are those employed by the Florida Department of Corrections. Secretary James McDonough is a gifted thinker -- not someone who develops policy on a whim or without regard for the weighty obligations of his post. His department embraces a policy of providing evidence-based addiction treatment for inmates and offenders on probation.

This may seem a surprisingly humane luxury for the guy who was the principal author of the U.S. Army's central fighting doctrine. But just ask the MIT graduate why he makes this a priority, and you will likely get a clear answer: Treating addicted criminals keeps the streets safer. McDonough's department has compiled reliable data in support of his policy: Three studies have demonstrated clearly that drug treatment for Florida offenders on probation in the community reduces recidivism by 27-30 percent. Treatment of addicted prisoners demonstrated reductions of 11-15 percent in recidivism.

His policy is also supported by a national meta-analysis of more than 290 offender programs intended to reduce crime. This rigorous analyis found that addiction treatment consistently proved its value in reducing recidivism among criminal offenders -- more than supervision and surveillance, more than electronic monitoring, more than faith-based interventions and more than prison time. Addiction treatment topped all of these programs for reducing crime among convicted criminals.

Effective addiction treatment of criminal offenders is a fiscally responsible public safety measure that must be protected and developed as a cornerstone of public safety policy. As a matter of public safety and fiscal responsibility, Florida legislators and Crist should protect these important programs as they weigh decisions on budget reductions.

By Finn Kavanagh, vice president of Phoenix House, chairs the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association's Criminal Justice Committee.

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