Treatment programs can pay off for all

COMMENTOctober 18, 2011 

Back in the day when Alaska was flush with oil money, programs for treating substance abuse, sex abuse and domestic violence flourished. You could find state funded programs from Barrow to Ketchikan and all places in between. So what happened? Why did all those programs disappear? And why are the citizens of Alaska now being told that they were actually quite cost effective in dealing with difficult problems?

A lot of points converged that led to the dismantling of the state's efforts to deal with societal problems like abuse and dependency. Money was drying up. There were public cries to get tough on crime. It was easier to get voters to approve bonds for a new jail than a rehab facility. So gradually most of the programs targeting rehabilitation were eliminated in favor of harsher, and frequently mandatory, sentences.

Judges faced with people convicted of crimes committed under the influence were limited in what they could order during sentencing because so many prisons no longer offered treatments programs. Child sexual abusers sentenced to mandatory time to serve emerged from jail with no change in their proclivities. Many offenders of all stripes returned to prison within a short time after release for committing more crimes, usually of much the same nature as that for which they had originally been sentenced.

Could treatment programs have prevented that level of recidivism? Could counseling have kept an abuser from abusing again? Quite frankly, in any individual case, who knows? What we do know is that if nothing is done and nothing is offered to help a prisoner deal with the issues that sent him or her to prison in the first place, that person has a high likelihood of reoffending. With help, treatment and support, statistics show that recidivism can be substantially reduced.

But here's an even better argument in today's economy. Treating someone in a substance abuse, sexual abuse or domestic violence program is way cheaper than what it costs to support someone in jail. Offering that treatment while they are in jail potentially gives us a break on paying for their almost instant return. Given the screams and cries about government spending being out of control, wouldn't it make sense to spend less money on programs that actually show some encouraging statistical results as opposed to spending it on expensive jails that have proven they do nothing so well as create a hard-core group of recidivists who will be sucking up our tax dollars for the rest of their lives?

I have worked in the field of child abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse long enough to know there are no magic bullets, no miracle formulas, no wondrous cures. I have long since stopped dreaming of the day when someone will invent a pill that creates an instant fix or find the misplaced wire in the brain and a way to rewire it so that someone is no longer attracted to little children. Those things are not apt to happen in my lifetime.

But I've also been in the field long enough to know that there are cases where the light bulb goes on and someone realizes what a mess they've made of their lives and turn themselves around with the help and support of counselors, clergy and family. Notice that nowhere in that grouping is the help and support of a prison guard mentioned. That's because prison guards are there for security reasons, to keep a bunch of people holed up together in an unnatural grouping from killing each other. They don't have the training or skills needed to help someone overcome what is often a lifetime of dysfunctional living. They are much too busy just trying to keep the peace.

So let's be realistic here and decide how we should really be spending our tax dollars in the criminal justice system. If spending a couple thousand dollars treating someone's dysfunction keeps him or her out of our jail system for even six months longer than they would have otherwise stayed out, we've already saved thousands of dollars.

Looked at properly, it's a win-win-win situation. Bleeding heart liberals get to save some people and ultra conservatives get to save some money. And the rest of us ... well, we ultimately get a safer society.

What's not to like?


Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow.

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