WASHINGTON – A recent study reports that treating substance abusers, especially African Americans, 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 linked the prevalence of substance abuse disorders to the high rates of incarceration among African-American 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 African-American community could have an impact on substance abuse and crime among young African-American 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 African Americans abstain from drugs and alcohol at higher rates than the national average, African Americans are disproportionately represented in drug arrests and prison sentences nationwide. Driven by draconian drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing, the incarceration rates for African Americans exploded by 500 percent between 1986 and 2004. In 2009, African-American 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, African-American 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 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.
States such as California, weighing the costs, chose to invest in treatment programs.
"According to the California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment (CALDATA), every $1 invested in substance abuse treatment has a return of $7 in cost savings from social benefits such as reduced health costs, crime, and lost productivity," the JPI study reported.
The Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan research group, found that each dollar spent on community-based drug treatment programs returned more than $18 in societal and economic benefits.
In a 2009, Jamie Fellner, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch said: "Hauling hundreds of thousands of people down to the station house each year because they have some weed or a rock of crack cocaine in their pocket has had little impact on drug use."
Fellner authored the report, "Decades of Disparity Drug Arrests and Race in the United States" that showed how "treatment, education and positive social investments" in poverty-stricken neighborhoods were "less destructive" and had a greater impact on reducing drug crimes than incarceration that cast a long shadow that often limited job and housing opportunities for an ex-offender years after he has paid his debt to society.
Richie said that as long as it's profitable to sell drugs illegally, it's a debt that some young, African Americans will continue to risk.
"The minute that the profit motive is taken out of both incarceration and the sales, distribution and production of drugs, you'll see more money diverted to treating mental health and substance abuse issues," said Richie.
The Meharry Medical College study recommended a number of broad policy reforms to decrease incarceration rates including increased awareness of SUDs among health care professionals, better treatment programs for substance abusers inside and outside of prison and connecting young, African-American males to mentors and support networks to help them avoid the pitfalls of illicit drug use.
Richie said that it is not enough to label our young African-American men "endangered species," as some researchers have done, if we're not willing to step up and protect them as a group threatened with extinction.
"The more people involved with providing mentorship and guidance to these young men, the more people that give them a sense that they are a worthwhile investment it helps to instill in them some sense of a meaningful future, that there is a role for them in this society, that they're not just the 'throw-away generation,'" said Richie.
Richie added: "We need more people that are willing to step in and say, "let's correct this guy's course before he does something that is irreversible.'"