Florida's budget crisis may destroy drug treatment in Florida. But if lawmakers respond thoughtfully, the crisis could end up making the state's drug-treatment efforts and criminal justice system more effective.
Across-the board cuts to treatment's already inadequate funding would render it all-but-irrelevant.
But if lawmakers look closely at the numbers they will see that bolstering the state's investment in drug treatment would actually cut costs.
The reason? It is more effective and less expensive than building new prisons.
On Wednesday, the Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil went before the Senate's criminal justice appropriations committee to respond to a directive from its chairman, Sen. Victor Crist, to show how it could cut 10 percent of its $3.2 billion budget. On the list: the complete elimination of $36.8 million for drug treatment programs both inside prisons and in partnerships with community-based, non-profit treatment groups that work with probationers and those in drug court.
The cuts, if realized, would be devastating both in terms of public safety and human costs. The short-term savings quickly would be consumed by the costs of housing additional prisoners and rising crime rates and the resulting social costs.
Florida is quickly running out of room in its prison system. It now houses 99,000 inmates but must grow to 105,000 beds by the middle of 2009. This year alone Florida is looking at spending about $650 million on new prison construction.
Bear in mind that 20 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons are there for drug offenses, but as many as two-thirds of the inmate population committed crimes either to feed a drug habit or while under the influence of their addiction.
Drug treatment substantially reduces crime. Nearly one-third of inmates who don't get drug treatment are sent back to prison, compared to just 11 percent of those who do get help.
The Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association estimates that providing substance abuse treatment to inmates and probationers will end up saving the state $278 million this year alone; and $771 million over the next five years.
Gov. Charlie Crist included a wise investment in drug treatment in his budget, nearly doubling the state's commitment to treatment with an additional $28 million. This tough-on-crime governor understands that preventing crimes is the best way to protect the public.
And we were heartened to see Sen. Crist make it clear in a recent interview with the Miami Herald that he stands in support of drug treatment initiatives.
The Florida Legislature has an opportunity this session to cut costs and improve public safety - if it will invest in drug-treatment programs.
An Editorial from The Tampa Tribune
Published: March 20, 2008
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