Incarcerating substance abusers in Michigan is too costly

Drug treatment courts offer a solution

Guest Editorials
Van Buren County Circuit Court Judge Paul Hamre is the latest among a growing number of officials who say drug treatment courts save money and lives.

We draw your attention to Van Buren County’s drug treatment court, which began in 2008 and is funded through a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. It is based on a model that has been very successful in Kalamazoo County.

The people who enter the drug court avoid jail time and a conviction, but first they must plead guilty to the crime. This saves court time in trials and, if they’re one of the 15 percent who aren’t successful graduates of the program, no trial is needed — they get locked up automatically.

Thus far this year, Van Buren County reported that 78 months of county jail time was saved, which works out to about $60,000 of county taxpayers’ money. This also accounted for a savings of about six years of prison time, which would have cost state taxpayers $216,000 over that time span.

The state’s first drug court, in Kalamazoo County in 1992, was for women charged with drug-abuse felonies. Now, Kalamazoo County has similar programs for men, founded in 1997, and juveniles, founded in 1998.

Treating someone in the program costs about $3,800 per year, compared to spending $15,000 to incarcerate the same person in jail.

Retired Kalamazoo County Circuit Judge William Schma, who started that first drug court in Kalamazoo and helped develop a foundation to support it, says substance abuse cases in the courts are not just a matter of criminality, they are a public health problem.

Consider that recent estimates indicate more than 50 percent of emergency room visits
involve alcohol or other drug addictions.

As Schma points out, for every dollar the community invests in treatment, it saves $12.

While the math may be straightforward, the problem of substance abuse is not. It’s complex and often tragic. Addiction costs our community hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in lost work time, motor vehicle accidents, and injury. In the worst cases, it causes death.

Yet, as Schma notes, for every dollar the state spends on dealing with addiction, it dedicates less than 1 cent to treatment and prevention.

Michigan must turn around that equation and start putting a larger share of the public investment in treatment instead.

Until we do, we will continue to see the drain on public coffers from what has become a tragic parade of substance abusers entering our justice system, almost assuredly never to leave it.