Evidence Shows Rehabilitation Can Do More for Public Safety than Incarceration

If people violate the law, they should be held accountable. But if the goal is for them to learn a lesson and not re-offend, handing down a prison sentence may not be the most effective action to take.

A new report by the Urban Institute supports evidence that shows treatment — not incarceration — is the best way to address drug addiction. To give access to rehabilitation, the study says, some felony drug offenses should be reclassified to misdemeanors.

From the report:

“A growing body of evidence demonstrates that incarceration is an ineffective response to drug abuse and that treatment in the community produces better public safety results. By reducing arrests, felony convictions, and incarceration for drug possession, states can focus limited law enforcement and criminal justice resources on more serious crimes.”

Rehabilitation has proven to be an effective tool for decreasing recidivism, the rate at which formerly incarcerated individuals re-offend. When treatment programs are made available to those who need it, society as a whole benefits.

After passing Proposition 47 in California, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, both state prison and local jail populations declined by as many as 15,000 fewer incarcerated people. It is estimated that the law also reduced prison spending by $68 million in the first year alone. California also awarded more than $100 million in grants to local governments for mental health treatment and other programs.

A bill in Alaska that included reclassification is projected to reduce populations in jail and prison by 13 percent, as well as save $380 million, by 2024. Some $100 million of the savings are to be invested in substance abuse and mental health treatment, as well as other programs.

Although more data needs to be collected and analyzed, the study says results are good so far:

“While it is too early to determine the full impact of reclassifying drug possession, initial results have been positive in states that were early adopters. Reductions in the prison population — both the people in prison for drug possession and the prison population overall — in California, Utah, and Connecticut have already occurred, and experts project similar reductions in Alaska and Oklahoma.
“Importantly, the reforms in these states also specify that a portion of the prison savings will be reinvested in evidence-based programs that reduce recidivism and improve public safety.”

Evidence-based programs and policies that provide alternatives to prison are relatively new. But the use of evidence is critical when reforming outdated, one-size-fits-all criminal justice laws.

States are proving that prison is not the best option for all non-violent drug offenders. And that rehabilitating addicts who are incarcerated is worth the investment.