ANNAPOLIS – Most inmates in state and local facilities have drug or alcohol problems. Most receive no rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the state builds more prisons. Current inmates are released. They commit crimes to fund their addictions. They return to prison.
According to Sen. Paula Hollinger, this scenario is the reality in Maryland. Short-sighted policy has perpetuated mistaken priorities in corrections spending, Hollinger says.
The Baltimore County Democrat is the lead sponsor of a bill that would avail all inmates in state and local facilities of substance abuse treatment.
“Year after year, we’re pouring more and more and more money into corrections,” Hollinger testified Wednesday before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
But criminals “are back out on the street again, back in the same communities… only to be re-committed to the system,” she said.
Drug-related crime results in death and drives up insurance rates, she added.
To qualify for help under Hollinger’s plan, an inmate would need a doctor’s diagnosis of drug or alcohol dependence. Treatment would be optional, and would not begin without an inmate’s written consent.
Currently, a small fraction of the estimated 27,000 inmates in state correctional facilities receive drug or alcohol treatment, state agencies report. Between 70 and 80 percent of inmates are estimated to abuse alcohol or drugs.
Though no one testified against the proposal, the Department of Fiscal Services estimated that it would be costly. Because of uncertainty over how many inmates would seek treatment, however, the agency refrained from making an exact expense estimate.
But dramatic increases in treatment funds are necessary and frugal in the long run, the bill’s backers said. Hollinger cited a 1992 California study that reported $7 saved for every $1 spent on substance abuse treatment for criminals.
In testimony, Baltimore City Councilman Norman Handy lashed out at what he said is Maryland’s preoccupation with punitive drug policy.
“What we are faced with in the state of Maryland is the myth that we can punish our way out of the drug problem,” Handy said. “We’re in fact saying we want to continue down the path of insanity.”
In telephone interviews, scholars on drug abuse reacted favorably to Hollinger’s bill, but expressed reservations.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea, but it needs to be done intelligently,” said Dr. Herbert Kleber, executive vice president of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. “It’s a start, but it’s not enough.”
Even with inmate treatment, Kleber said, “the likelihood of recidivism is very high” without follow-up care and other preparation for independent living.
Kleber cited a University of Delaware study showing that inmates receiving follow-up substance treatment in a halfway house functioned better than those receiving treatment followed by unsupervised release.
Another scholar expressed concern about where money would come from for Hollinger’s proposal.
Other programs would require downsizing or new taxes may be necessary, said Bob Moffit of the Heritage Foundation. Hollinger said that she was open to compromise. It may be acceptable to phase in the programs she seeks, she said. -30-