Scott Colom: Drug court helps taxpayers, society

May 25, 2011 12:12:00 PM

Scott Colom - [email protected]


Last week, Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard presented plans for a drug court in Judicial District 16, which includes Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Noxubee and Clay counties. Drug court allows drug addicts and abusers (not dealers) to receive rehabilitative services instead of prison time. The drug court includes three to five years of intense drug rehabilitation, such as counseling and drug testing, court supervision, and education and employment assistance. This new approach is a free market strategy to decrease drug use and has the potential to save millions of tax dollars for Mississippians.  


Since the Nixon administration declared a "war on drugs," the state and federal government''s approach to drug use has been to attack the supply of illegal drugs. This has mostly consisted of high arrest and incarceration rates for drug abuse and aid to other countries to stop foreign traffickers. Forty years later, the evidence shows this strategy failed to curb drug use. The number of illicit drug users has steadily risen and is currently estimated at 21.8 million. Decreases in the use of cocaine and heroin have been replaced with increases in use of prescription drugs, ecstasy and methamphetamine.  


While drug use has not declined over this time, incarceration rates and the tax dollars required to enforce drug laws increased dramatically. Incarceration rates have risen by more than 300 percent over the last 40 years - America currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world - and the bulk of this increase is the result of convictions for non-violent, drug offenses. To support the additional police, prosecutors, security guards, and prisons necessary for this increase, the government has spent more than 2.5 trillion tax dollars, with the state of Mississippi spending hundreds of millions.  


Yet, recent studies have demonstrated that reducing the demand for illegal drugs - a free market approach - is more cost effective. Most people convicted of drug possession are drug addicts and have high recidivism rates. Focusing on the demand for illegal drugs, rather than trying to stop the supply, addresses the addiction that causes the crime. The less people are addicted to drugs, the less drug addicts there are to arrest or re-arrest. Reducing the demand for drugs also decreases the supply, which means there are less drug dealers destroying communities and less tax money needed to fight them.  


For example, Texas has recently taken steps to fight drug use with more community based treatment and the results have been a reduction in the prison population and billions of dollars in projected savings for tax payers. For those that believe focusing more on rehabilitation will increase crime, the crime rate has dropped ten percent since Texas implemented these reforms. Therefore, by taking a free market approach, Texas was able to spend less on prisons and increase public safety.  


Over the next 10 years, a drug court in Judicial District 16 has the potential to save millions of tax dollars. As judge Howard recently pointed out, 80 percent of all crimes committed in Mississippi are drug related. It costs around $16 million a year to incarcerate people in Lowndes County, and this doesn''t include the millions in other costs associated with incarceration. Rehabilitation isn''t perfect - Judge Howard reported that around 40 percent of the participants in the drug court successfully complete the program - but successfully rehabilitating four out of 10 drug users will decrease recidivism, the taxes spent incarcerating addicts and the number of drug dealers.  


Predictably, certain people are not going to approve of any rehabilitative approach to drug use. They will demagogue it as "soft" on crime, ignoring the fact that drug use is mostly a crime against one''s family and one''s self. They may argue we should decrease prison spending by taking away luxuries for prisoners, like food and beds. They may say sending all drug users to jail makes them feel safe, despite the evidence that incarcerating drug users does not increase public safety. Before deciding whether to believe those arguments or whether to give the drug court a chance, remember the trillions of tax dollars spent fighting the "war on drugs" and ask yourself one question: What have we won? 


Scott Colom is a local attorney. His e-mail address is [email protected]

Scott Colom is a local attorney.