Most people who cycle through the criminal justice system have serious health care needs. Three out of every five state prisoners and sentenced jail inmates have a substance abuse problem. Half of state and federal prisoners and two thirds of jail inmates are in serious psychological distress or have a history of mental illness. Jails and prisons provide some treatment services, but what if we increased access to treatment in communities, so that people could get help before they get into trouble? New research shows that offering broad access to treatment for these problems is not only compassionate, but also a cost-effective way to reduce crime rates, says the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. One way to increase access to care is to open more treatment facilities. Existing facilities often operate at capacity because of limited funding, so that those who want treatment cannot always find help.
Sam Bondurant, Jason Lindo, and Isaac Swensen of Brookings studied what happened to crime when local substance abuse treatment facilities opened or closed. They found that an increase in the number of treatment facilities causes a reduction in both violent and financially-motivated crime. This is likely due to a combination of forces: reducing drug abuse can reduce violent behavior that is caused by particular drugs, as well as property crimes like theft committed to fund an addiction. Reducing demand for illegal drugs might also reduce violence associated with the illegal drug trade. The authors estimate that each additional treatment facility in a county reduces the social costs of crime in that county by $4.2 million per year. Annual costs of treatment in a facility are approximately $1.1 million, so the benefits far exceed the costs.