St. Louis Co. Halts Cost-Efficient Drug Treatment


Life is good for Joe Babb, who is starting a landscaping business in St. Louis, and is raising an 8-year-old son. But 12 years ago, at 29, he was a crack addict. He ended up in a 120-day treatment program called Choices, in the St. Louis County Jail.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan says that Babb got his life together and has been clean for more than a year and a half. In its five years of existence, the program has served 1,275 inmates. Last year, 92 percent of the inmates who enrolled completed the course, and 78 percent have remained arrest-free one year out.

But the program is being canceled for budget reasons.

McClellan asks, “How can anybody think this makes sense?”

The Choices program is not cheap. It costs almost $1 million a year, serving 375 inmates annually. “Let’s be conservative and say the program has a 50 percent success rate. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, the state spends $12,965 a year to keep a person in prison. That does not include capital costs like prison construction. Still, if Choices keeps half its enrollees out of prison, it saves the taxpayers $2,430,937.”

Libertarians who favor treatment over incarceration have been joined lately by conservative followers of Rush Limbaugh, McClellan notes. These conservatives have come to understand that drug addiction is a medical condition. They understand that there are consequences for breaking the law. Almost all of them are accepted to Choices only after pleading guilty. This is a jailhouse program.

There is another financial argument. Let’s say an addict is put on probation. With his addiction untreated, he or she is almost certain to continue using. Most addicts have to steal to support their habits, and if they need $100, they have to steal $300 worth of stuff. Fences don’t pay retail. So the addict not only ends up going to prison anyway, but he or she costs society money and aggravation before the prison meter even begins to run.


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